South Africa: When will corporate SA get with the programme?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Mar 13 13:43:18 UTC 2007

When will corporate SA get with the programme?

Pumla Dineo Gqola: 12 March 2007 11:59

A friend visiting from Sierra Leone once nodded in agreement with a
Nigerian colleagues comment: The great thing about South Africa is that
you really value your languages. She had asked me what language
Generations or Isidingo characters were speaking to each other, finding it
remarkable that national television used more than one language in this
way, and seeing evidence of a linguistically complex democracy. I cringed.
If only this were the rule rather than the exception. The SABC has at
least recognised that, in our homes, we like being spoken to as if we
matter. The public broadcaster is not entirely alone in showing a little
respect for the non-English-speaking millions. Now a non-profit group,, with a decidedly smaller budget than most corporations,
has translated an entire electronic office suite into the 11 official
languages. Anybody can download whichever ones they want for free from
their website and distribute them freely and legally at will.

I cringed because 13 years into a complicated democracy, these
organisations are almost alone in this regard. My embarrassment was like
that invited by the chain email that returns to many of our middle-class
black inboxes, claiming to be written by one in our midst -- the one that
admonishes us for our fraught relationship with English. We speak English
all day, conduct business exclusively in English, do most of our writing
-- even to relatives and those with whom we share African languages -- in
English, and sometimes speak to our children in English. We say it just
makes things easier. There are no easily accessible equivalent words in an
indigenous African language, we claim. But why do we leave it to
overworked and under-appreciated translators and interpreters to create
these words? Of course, my colleagues were not reading about the
Afrikaans-medium Ermelo school that will not admit English-speaking
students, or national universities that insist on remaining Afrikaans,
even though they accept government subsidies paid with taxpayers money.
They were not reflecting on how, as mother tongue speakers of nine of the
11 official languages, black students are reported by default as part of
the English students in political arguments. My colleagues miss the
avalanche of rejections that land on Education Minister Naledi Pandors lap
each time she mentions mother tongue instruction.

I wished my visiting friends could eavesdrop on how my students at the
University of the Free State, where I taught for close to a decade,
defended their decision not to speak more seSotho or xiTsonga in the world
of work. English is an international language, they say, and must remain
the de facto language of law, technology and business. Any attempt to
introduce more languages will hobble our competitiveness, placing us in an
economic ghetto. Yet the Japanese, Chinese and Western European economies
flourish and make a mockery of such arguments. Our inspired language
policy is in place and we can defend it with our non-payment for services
that insult us. When is corporate South Africa going to get with the
programme? Forget that it was in a state of denial so deep that it refused
to show up at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, what oppressive
legacy is it propping up with our permission today?

Clients should not be expected to be grateful that one bank tokenistically
offers services in isiXhosa and seSotho, among other languages. The
corporations should speak to us in our languages, not the other way round.
Most people who buy medicines, cereal or other products are not only
English-speaking. And before we are told about how expensive it will be to
translate packaging and medicine inserts, remember SABC TV and Nobody is so stupid as to think that translating a few
paragraphs or airline greetings requires anywhere near the effort these
entities have had to put into treating us with respect. As I renew my TV
licence this year, Im not paying any software licence renewals for
proprietary software that says I dont exist. My computer is quite happy
with free software that allows me to function fully in ngesiXhosa,
isiZulu, seSotho and other languages I speak.

Pumla Dineo Gqola is an associate professor in the school of literature
and language at the University of the Witwatersrand. She writes in her
personal capacity


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