[lg policy] South Africa: Economic value of indigenous languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Sep 10 14:14:39 UTC 2009

South Africa: Economic value of indigenous languages
by Christo van der Rheede

The economic value of indigenous languages


South Africa is a multi-lingual country with 11 official languages.
After decades of colonial and apartheid rule and the complete
disregard of our indigenous languages, its instrumental role in terms
of cultural, educational and economic empowerment and more importantly
its role in nation building, is finally acknowledged. Our national
constitution provides a policy and institutional framework for the
protection, maintenance and promotion of all of these languages (The
Constitution, 1996: Chapter 1). Hence a very specific constitutional
obligation is placed on all spheres of government to create an
enabling environment for all of these official languages to fulfil
their rightful roles to spearhead community development, bring about
modernisation and assist in overcoming the prejudices and injustices
of the past.

The fulfilment of these expectations after 15 years into our democracy
remains still unaccomplished. In fact we have reached a critical stage
where we need to thoroughly assess the contribution of the language
policy and institutional framework in fulfilling these expectations.
Related research undertaken by distinguished South African linguistic
scholars such as Neville Alexander, Vic Webb, and David Mutasa affirms
the extensive scope and good intent of the language policies developed
by government. It also confirms the lack of political will to give
effect to these policies and failure on the part of the institutional
framework mandated with the responsibility to protect and promote the
linguistic interests of all South African communities in a fair and
equitable manner.

Neville Alexander in an article titled ‘Proper use of mother tongue
the way forward' argues that our language policy, although very
progressive on paper, has allowed English to become the ‘de facto sole
official language’, which benefits only the middle class and elite in
our society. At the same time too little is done to transform our
indigenous languages into ‘cultural capital’ in order to create a
better life for the working class as well (Alexander, 2008: 9). The
trend towards institutional monolingualism’ and the ‘lack of support’
from public managers for our 11 official language policy are also of
concern to Vic Webb.

In an article titled ‘Language policy development in South Africa’ he
proposes that in order to achieve the language dispensation as
envisaged by our national constitution “the power relations between
the official languages need to be balanced, so that formerly
advantaged people do not continue to have an unfair advantage” (Webb,
2006: 11). David Mutasa, in his research on South Africa’s the
language policy states:

“The people do not see much value in African languages …? Authorities
seem to be reluctant to ensure that African languages, by appropriate
legal provisions, assume their rightful role as of official
communication in public affairs, administrative and educational
domains. No one seems to take African languages seriously. They seem
to have nothing to offer except in everyday communication between
members of families and informal conversation with friends and
colleagues” (Mutasa, 2003: 6).

The aforementioned concerns regarding the promotion and protection of
our indigenous linguistic interests are however not an isolated South
African issue. The spread of English all over the world and the impact
it has on the status of indigenous languages is of great concern to
many communities and scholars. In the book, Language Policy and
Modernity in Southeast Asia, attention is paid to the impact of
English on the status of indigenous Southeast Asian languages (Rappa,
et. al. 2006: 5). While English is considered an ethnically ‘neutral’
language in countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and
Thailand, its widespread use is considered problematic in certain

In an article titled ‘Acknowledging value of mother tongue’ published
on the Brunei Times website, the author Michael Tan says:

“We need a national language, no doubt, but the current policy is
worrisome because it promotes English first, Filipino second — both at
the expense of other mother languages. We should allow Filipinos to
nurture their own mother language and share this with other Filipinos
or even the world. As we begin to appreciate the rhythms and cadences,
the humour and the wisdom, in each of our many languages, we just
might be able to overcome our parochialism and regionalism and build a
nation strong in its multicultural foundations”.

How do we create an enabling environment in South Africa in which
mother tongue can be nurtured and fully developed, not only for social
and cultural interaction, but also to give it academic and economic
value? In order for us to achieve this, a comprehensive understanding
of community development theory, the role of mother tongue in this
regard and why such an enabling environment is necessary, is required.

Community Development Theory and Mother Tongue

Community development theory and practice focuses on planning and
managing policy, projects, programmes and processes relating to
sustainable development, poverty eradication, unemployment, social
inequality and the depletion of natural resources. On a tactical
level, it explores, monitors and evaluates the challenges with regard
to community participation, empowerment, capacity building,
sustainable development, self-sustainment and the learning process.

According to Davids, community development theory and practice is a
relatively new phenomenon which emerged as a discipline after the
Second World War. Development theory is divided into different phases.
The 1950s and early 1960s were dominated by the theories of the
modernisation school of thought. During the late 1960s and early 1970s
there was a strong focus on the theories of the dependency school of
thought and since the 1980s the focus shifted away from the previous
macro theories to the development of micro theories or
community-oriented development theories (Davids, 1998: 1).

The modernisation school presupposed that the practices of
underdeveloped countries were primitive and that Western economic
practices and values represented the only recipe to guide communities
on a developmental and wealth-creating path. A classical example is
the multi-levelled economic growth theory introduced in 1960 by the
American scholar Walt Rostow. He proposed five levels which would
ensure the development of underdeveloped countries - substituting
indigenous and traditional systems with Western practices, creating a
new political elite, centralising the political structures, aligning
the political, social and institutional entities with economic goals,
developing peoples’ technological and entrepreneurial skills and
creating mechanisms and institutions which would create high levels of
mass consumption and expenditure. This model was criticised mainly
because of its strong colonial nature, the dependence on Western
capital and its disregard for indigenous languages, culture and
knowledge (Davids, 1998: 3-4).

The 1960s were also characterised by the development of language
policy for social, political and education systems. According to
Hartshorne in Mesthrie, the development of language policy on the
African continent was influenced by, on the one hand, the total
advantage of colonial languages on nearly all institutionalised levels
of society and, on the other hand, the strong desire of academics and
writers to use the mother tongues as educational and empowerment
instruments to rid their countries of its colonial burden. He
summarises this situation as follows:

“There has been a continuing tension in most African countries between
these two tendencies accompanied by ambivalent attitudes towards
English: on the one hand a recognition of its practical usefulness, on
the other an uncomfortable frustration that Africans had little choice
because of their subjection to a Western metropolitan culture”
(Mesthrie, 1995: 307).

According to Hartshorne, this tension and ambivalence were complicated
by the fact that the new political elite totally ignored the academics
and writers who argued in favour of the use of mother tongue. After
all, the colonial language provided for the immediate language needs
of the elite who, without due consideration, accepted it as the best
language option for political unity, international communication, a
medium to transfer skills and knowledge and which would introduce them
to Western value systems.

The rise of the dependency school and their sharp criticism against
the development methodology of the modernisation school rekindled hope
among academics and writers who campaigned for the use of the mother
tongue. According to Davids, the dependency school also propagated the
idea that development was not necessarily synonymous with
Westernisation. Developing countries were therefore encouraged to
break ties with Western capitalist countries and to strive towards
self-sustainment and independence. Critics of the dependency school
argue that it placed so much emphasis on identifying external
stumbling blocks to development that it failed to rise above the level
of rhetoric and provide sensible and sustainable development
initiatives (Davids, 1998: 12-14).

And although the intrinsic value of mother tongue for sustainable and
independent community development was acknowledged by dependency
theorists, little progress was made in introducing the mother tongue
at an institutional level, especially in Africa. The colonial language
status quo was maintained. Alexander describes this situation:

“The African elites who inherited the colonial kingdom from the
ostensibly departing colonial overlords, for reasons of convenience
and in order to maintain their grip on power, have made nominal
gestures towards equipping the indigenous languages of the continent
with the wherewithal for use in powerful and high-status contexts”
(Alexander and Busch, 2007).

With the development of micro theories or community-oriented
development strategies during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the
focus shifted to six important community building blocks - community
participation, capacity building, empowerment, self-reliance,
sustainability and social learning. These micro theories are favoured
by present-day development practitioners. It lays the foundation for a
more context-specific approach to development and policy formulation,
which takes cognisance of the unique circumstances, needs, skills,
knowledge and values of communities and using it as a starting point
to develop communities economically, culturally, educationally,
socially and spiritually (Burkey, 1993: 56-70).

It also emphasises the value of cultural constructs, such as language,
cultural practices and indigenous knowledge systems as a means to
restore communities’ self-worth.

“The communitarian perspective attaches a higher value to human agency
than either culturally or economically determinist views of social
change. Culture and cultural constructions of reality, however, assume
a central position in the communitarian perspectives” (Tehranian 1994:
286 in Melkote and Steeves 2001: 335).

Hence it recognises that development initiatives cannot be detached
from the context in which the community in question finds itself. It
is within a complex framework of past experiences, metaphors, faith,
values, perceptions, relationships, power struggles, economic
activities, language, cultural and agricultural practices in which any
development initiative becomes meaningful.

Communities will not take ownership of projects that they cannot
relate to or that do not fit into their meaning-giving context. For
their context is, after all, the only one within which they can
confidently associate with projects designed to improve their living
conditions. That these communities are also exposed to other contexts
through the radio, television, computer, cellular phone, urbanisation,
migration and globalisation cannot be dispelled. However, this
exposure is often limited to the supply of cheap labour in exchange
for low wages that hardly provide in their basic needs. These
communities consequently remain trapped in a spiral of disempowerment
and generation after generation fail to escape from poverty, ignorance
and despair.

Kotze concurs and makes the following valuable observation:

“The people’s meaning-giving context is the only framework within
which they can relate to developers. It is the framework within which
development initiatives obtain meaning. It will either permit or block
development, depending whether there is a ‘fit’ between development
initiatives and context. People will not be steered, influenced or
‘taken with’ unless the development initiative has positive meaning
within their context” (Kotze & Kotze, 1996: 7).

Given this background it is necessary to determine the scope and
intent of our existing language policies, whether it is aligned with
the meaning-giving context of the various indigenous language
communities and whether if implemented it would be of tangible benefit
to these communities.

Scope and intent of current language policies

Two very important policies are worth mentioning here:

the National Language Policy Bill adopted by Cabinet in 2003 and
the Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy which was adopted by
Cabinet in 2004.
The SA Languages Bill strategic goals are as follow:

To facilitate individual empowerment and national development;
To develop and promote the Bantu languages;
To provide a regulatory framework for the effective management of the
official languages as languages of the public service;
To facilitate economic development via the promotion of multilingualism;
To enhance the learning of various South African languages;
To develop the capacity of the country’s languages, especially in the
context of technologisation
The Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy seeks to recognise,
affirm, develop, promote and protect IKS systems in South Africa. The
main IKS Policy drivers include:

Practical measures for the development of services provided by IK
holders and practitioners, with a particular focus on traditional
medicine, but also including areas such as agriculture, indigenous
languages and folklore;
The affirmation of African cultural values in the face of
globalisation – a clear imperative given the need to promote a
positive African identity;
Underpinning the contribution of indigenous knowledge to the economy –
the role of indigenous knowledge in employment and wealth creation;
Interfaces with other knowledge systems, for example indigenous
knowledge is used together with modern biotechnology in the
pharmaceutical and other sectors to increase the rate of innovation
(IKS Policy, 2004: 9).
Given the scope and intent of the aforementioned goals as outlined in
the SA Languages Bill and the policy drivers as outlined in the IKS
Policy it is clear that ‘cultural constructions’ such as our
indigenous languages and knowledge systems ‘assume a central position’
within the mandate of the various departments who developed these
policies. One cannot but admire the efforts of the Arts and Culture
and Science and Technology government departments and all those who
helped them with the development of these policies.

Sadly however, their vision and insight to use our indigenous
languages and knowledge systems in as many imaginative ways possible
to transform our disparate society into a people-centred society
cannot come to fulfilment due to the lack of political will to enact
it as legislation through parliament. One trusts that the
Zuma-administration will soon take this matter up with parliament.
Because not only will legislation in this regard enforce compliance at
all levels of institutional governance and compel the private sector
to play their part in promoting multilingualism, but it will also
unlock a range of economic possibilities.

Indigenous languages and its economic possibilities

Today we find ourselves at the threshold of the 21st century also
known as the Information Society. According to the World Summit on the
Information Society held in 2003, an Information Society is one in

“…everyone can create, utilise and share information and knowledge,
enabling individuals, communities and people to achieve their full
potential in promoting sustainable development and improving their
quality of life…” (World Summit on the Information Society, 2003 in
Wesso, 2007).

The Knowledge Economy is the economic component of the Information
Society in which information is used productively or in innovative
ways to create wealth. Our diverse indigenous language heritage is an
important enabling resource for developing communities to actively
participate in the Knowledge Economy and to create wealth through the
generation of knowledge. The perception that our indigenous languages
are not fit for this purpose is preposterous. It merely requires a
shift in mindset and dedication by its speakers to create a presence
on the Internet, design websites and develop sustainable products and
services in that particular language.

In this regard much can be learned form Afrikaans and how it is used
as an instrument of academic excellence and cultural exchange. In
addition it is also the primary driver for a range of economic
activities. These economic activities entail the following industries:
education, radio, drama, Creative writing, poetry, journalism,
television, film, language practitioning, advertising, heritage and
tourism, electronic media, traditional food, fashion, architecture,
medicine, law, social sciences, design.

The IsiZulu market has also been very responsive to embrace the
Knowledge Economy. www.isolezwe.co.za is the world's first Zulu news
site and it carries the same content as Isolezwe, South Africa's top
Zulu newspaper. The site's main audience is drawn from the emerging,
urban-based, aspirational and knowledgeable Zulu market. Whereas
before, Zulu readers may have been hesitant or unable to go online,
they are now encouraged to use the Internet as an information tool.

The Way Forward

South Africa’s divisive and often vicious past has left us with a
language legacy in which there is a tendency to equate mother tongue
with backwardness and traditionalism. It also brings back memories of
a divided past, substandard education and tribalism. Such notions are
understandable, but we often forget that it is not language in itself
that causes conflict and hatred amongst people, but rather the lack of
opportunities and inability to access it.

Today South Africa is a democratic state with 11 official languages.
Where we come from with respect to our divisive past, is an issue we
should always be mindful of. My foremost concern however, is our
future. How do we create a fair and just society and start to close
the everwidening gap between rich and poor. This in itself is a time
bomb waiting to explode. I am convinced that mother tongue can play a
role in this regard, however a number of steps must be implemented to
prevent a repeat of our language legacy of yesteryear. This entails:

The National Language Bill and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Policy to
be enacted as legislation. Schools to provide quality mother tongue
education at primary level and where possible at senior level and
learners having a choice to write their final examinations in either
their mother tongue or English. Universities in a particular region
can start to provide certain classes, depending on the availability of
lectures and translation services, in the indigenous languages. In the
Western Cape for example UCT, UWC, CPUT, US can all work together to
provide students with the choice to attend certain modules in English,
Afrikaans and IsiXhosa.

This will stimulate the need to translate or write academic textbooks
in other languages and improve pass rates. The various products and
services on offer by the cultural industry must be made available in
all the official languages. Radio, music, books, lexicography and even
TV series are already available in most of the official languages. In
doing so the cultural industry can become a leading employment
industry and a major revenue contributor in South Africa. The various
language units at our universities to become more industry focused and
train potential artist, writers, musicians, journalist, etc, for the
cultural and its related industries.


South Africa stands to lose nothing if we take bold steps and start
positioning our indigenous languages as major trajectories for
academic excellence and economic empowerment. Instead we stand to gain
much in terms of improved academic achievements, self-pride,
self-reliance, a more tolerant society, high levels of creativity,
communities taking ownership, more economic opportunities, etc. This
does not mean that we should dismiss the importance of English,
because it enables us to communicate across local and international
boundaries. A good verbal command of the English language and being
able to write it fairly well is non-negotiable. An English only
approach is however contrary to the letter and spirit of our national
constitution. Also we stand to lose too much if we would go this way.

“A people that loses its language or languages is a people that loses
its words, and when a people loses its words, it loses its soul and
vision of the world. When this happens the community in question
become lodged in dependence that lasts until it recovers its words and
begins to articulate its past, present and future, nationally and
internationally” (Ndumbe III: 39).

*Christo van der Rheede is the CEO: Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans


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