[lg policy] South Africa: Enkosi, ke a leboha, ndi a livhuwa
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Mon Sep 21 14:24:59 UTC 2015
Enkosi, ke a leboha, ndi a livhuwa 2015-09-21 09:00
[image: Mondli Makhanya]
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If Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga had an appreciation for
Scottish waters, this lowly newspaperman would be dashing out to buy her a
three-decade-old bottle of the good stuff.
On Friday, Motshekga entered the book of heroes following her announcement
that, from next year, every child entering Grade 1 would be compelled to
learn a language other than English and Afrikaans. This may sound like a
no-brainer, considering that South Africa adopted an 11-official-language
policy more than 20 years ago and the majority of the population speaks
languages other than English as their mother tongue.
Motshekga has been passionate about both mother tongue instruction and the
teaching of African languages from the time she was in charge of education
in Gauteng. Since moving to the national sphere, where she is able to shape
policy, she has been increasingly vocal about it and has accelerated the
development of the instruments to make it happen.
Emphasising the value of multilingualism, Motshekga argued that “the whole
question of psychological alienation of Africans culturally and
linguistically does not disappear with freedom”.
“You know, in our country, if you speak English well, probably you are a
clever African; worse still, if you speak it with an ‘accent’, you are the
best,” she said.
In June, she spoke about her commitment to strengthen all the official
“Through the promotion of African languages, we can address some aspects of
social cohesion. As a country, we will better communicate and understand
each other if we understand those cultural and language idiosyncrasies that
at times isolate us in our own land,” she said.
The destruction of African languages is one of the biggest crimes of the
post-1994 order. It is a tragic irony that, after all the years of struggle
for dignity and equality, the advent of democracy heralded the demise of
indigenous languages. Once we were done with the Constitution-making
process, the lofty ideals of language equality were quickly forgotten. We
stampeded towards having English as the dominant and increasingly sole
medium of communication.
It is painful to admit that African languages enjoyed better protection and
promotion under apartheid than they do in the era of freedom. For their own
evil and diabolical reasons, the apartheid rulers forced blacks to have
“tribal identities”. This meant separate residential areas and schooling
for people of different ethnic groups. The Group Areas Act also confined
blacks to townships, and apartheid economics kept blacks in the underclass.
Under these conditions, languages thrived. With little official support,
they developed organically. There was a wealth of literature as authors fed
a hungry market – from primary school to tertiary level, as well as to
leisure reading. Radio plays spawned great stories and township theatre
Then came freedom and, with it, upward mobility. With upward mobility came
aspiration. The upwardly mobile and aspirational found African languages
rather backward and uncool, and turned their backs on them. Thus began the
sad decline of indigenous languages.
It seems the political establishment had not in its wildest dreams
envisaged such an eventuality. Like deer caught in the headlights, they
stood bewildered as the take-up of African languages in schools and
universities dwindled. They looked on as the anglicising of South Africa
gnawed at one of the key repositories of indigenous knowledge. Publishers
lost interest in a market they saw as having no future. Anchors and deejays
on the SABC’s African-language radio stations proved they were cool by
mixing it up. Only Afrikaans speakers felt the need to fight this
anglicisation. Their politicians, businesspeople and academics fought a
stoic and justified battle for their language – albeit, at times, the
battle has been used for ulterior purposes. Not so the speakers of the
other nine indigenous languages.
In the absence of political backing from the top, the Pan SA Languages
Board – whose stated mandate is to protect and promote all languages – was
powerless. Successive heads and employees of the institution, all of them
individuals committed to the cause, could do nothing, as they were regarded
as just a necessary irritant by those in power.
Now we find ourselves in a profound crisis that is going to require hard
work and tons of money to resolve. Just like the turnaround of neglected
CBDs has taken billions that need not have been spent had the decline been
forestalled, so the reversal of the destruction of African languages is
going to cost a fortune.
Language is not just a nice-to-have. In its words, idioms, proverbs and
richness, it houses vast knowledge – not just historical and cultural
knowledge, but deep scientific knowledge too. To allow a language to die is
to kill centuries, and sometimes millenniums, of knowledge. It is sabotage.
At least Motshekga has now launched this battle in earnest. If only she had
an appreciation for the rivers of Speyside
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