Simphiwe Dana’s Sunday Times piece on not taking African languages seriously

Although I have written about this topic in the papers before, several years ago in the Mail and Guardian, this post is motivated by Simphiwe Dana’s courageous opinion editorial in this past weekend’s Sunday Times. There are a few aspects of Ms Dana’s argument that I disagree quite strongly with, but I do share many of the concerns that she articulates. The gist of her argument (in case something happens to the link above, as sometimes happens), as I understand it, is as follows:

a) In much of urban South Africa, outside of townships, looking for schools that teach Xhosa/Zulu/Sotho/Tswana/Swati/Tsonga/Venda/Pedi/Ndebele is a lesson in pain. She refers to experiencing this earlier when trying to get a school for her children in Cape Town. I am pretty sure she had similar hardship in Johannesburg.

b) The above is true because only Afrikaans and English, out of the official languages of the country, are taught in ways that take the languages seriously and in manners that encourage their use at first language level.

c) The status of a people’s language says a lot about the status of that people’s culture – to them, when they are in power – as well as to their (previous) oppressors.

d) Parents should not have to move or take their children to township schools in order to have language -which is their right legally – taken and taught seriously.

e) African languages carry more than the meanings in the words used to communicate. They carry a worldview and a series of abstract and concrete reference points that are present in various African languages. This is why Ms Dana cares less about which African language her children learn well than she does about them learning one (and the world it carries) well. This is an urgent task that we must take up or deal with the consequences of language neglect.

f) She suggests that Zulu be the official language that is taught at first language level in schools since it is widely spoken and relatively easy on the tongue.

g) We need to hold our current government responsible and accountable for the language mess in our schools even as we keep an eye to the historical context that brought us here.

h) Afrikaans is not an African language. It carries the arrogance of the Dutch colonisers and the apartheid establishment. Although the language was shaped through African location, its Afrikaner nationalist use ensured that it remained a language of wounding.

I am really glad that Dana wrote and submitted this article for publication because it raises several issues that I think need to be raised again and again until something changes. I know that the bulk of the responses will be defensive and vile because any questioning of Black marginalisation in this country elicits this kind of silencing. Mark my words, people will write back to her piece and claim that she has a chip on her shoulder, that she is playing the race card, that she doesn’t know what she is talking about. They’ll also write in and say she is out of touch with what is important in the world and the country, that most Black parents don’t mind the condescending third languages taught at Model C schools because they know their children need to speak English to make it in the world. How do I know? Because these are the stock responses that follow us everywhere. So, I applaud Dana because I think that we need to change the sorry state of education in SA, private schooling included. But I’d like to engage with the layers of her argument in more detail – agreeing and disagreeing with her, as I go along.

to a) I don’t think anybody can deny that what Dana describes is the state of language education in many SA schools post-apartheid. This is an insult of the highest order for the children who go through such schooling, regardless of which race they are. South African children should be able to speak various languages in their country – more than their parents can, even when their parents are polyglots. The school system should play a leading role in this. But it does not. This is a topic that has come up in various conversations with other parents in my own life. I was aghast, when my partner and I started looking at possible schools for our child, to learn that most schools we would have preferred – many with ‘progressive credentials’ – teach English and Afrikaans at first language level, and all other official languages at third language level until the end of primary school. I have various friends who did Xhosa third language at school. Many of them did so for twelve years. None of them can speak Xhosa beyond tentative understanding and elementary small talk. Learning a language at third year level does not teach you how to speak it no matter what your grades say. The fact that languages are taught at third language level at all is an insult.

to b) nothing more to add to this argument. This policy keeps all other SA languages marginal. It makes a joke of the eleven official languages policy/legislation since that is only true on paper. It also points to the inefficiency of our government on this point as well as – perhaps much more so – the irresponsibility of the parents who continue to leave this unchanged in the schools they pay fees to.

to c) yes. see my response to b) above. This current situation means that while these schools are located in a democracy, effectively, they operate as though they are in an apartheid state with two official languages.

to d) No, they should not. We should litigate, and in this respect follow Ntombenhle Nkosi’s example of taking a Durban High School to court, and who is quoted after her victory as having said “Parents must just not take it for granted that schools are going to do it for them, they won’t. Every parent must ensure that their language – be it isiXhosa, be it isiSwati, Zetswane, Sesotho Saleboa, Tshivenda, Tsonga – must be offered as the first language because the National Curriculum Statement states that every learner must choose the home language, not the home language of the school.” I will say nothing of the typos in the transcribed quotation, even though they, too, tell an interesting story about the disrespect of African languages.

e) I agree that this is always true of language. This is why even those of us who are polyglots often cannot translate a concept across unrelated language families. This is also why I have said over and over again that I would prefer to send my child to a school that teaches all SA languages on its books at first language. I am not overly concerned about whether the language is Tsonga or Zulu or Sotho. I am mortified that the only schools that do this in my area are schools whose other values are at odds with mine (mainly on consumerism). But I’d rather send my child to a bizzare school that takes his language and his right to language seriously (and deal with the consequences of helping him unlearn the capitalist values) than to one with “ostensibly” socialist, feminist and anti-racist politics but that tells him his language, ancestry and continent are expendable.

f) Here, I disagree on various technical points. First of all, I don’t see why our children should have to learn only one language when we speak several languages in this country and continent. Many of these Model C schools are capable of teaching SA children how to speak German and French alongside English and Afrikaans. I am sure with motivation, they can do the same with various official languages. The second technicality on which I disagree is on whether isiZulu is any easier than some other indigenous languages. I don’t think that there is such a thing as an easy language, where ease is similar for everybody. I think that what is easy for you is based on what you already know. So, no, I am not convinced that Zulu is easier than Tsonga. My third technicality is about adopting a language spoken by a larger group due to issues of possible future dominance – we will be saying something about Venda when we make Zulu more appropriately official. We do not matter because there are many of us. We matter because we are human beings.

g) Yes, let us do this as a matter of urgency. And not just our government either. Corporate SA needs to get with the programme too. In 2010, I am sick and tired of medicine inserts and packaging that comes in English and Afrikaans exclusively, as though it is 1990. This is where the power of coalitions and campaigns might be harnessed. A movement that says we matter and our languages matter is long overdue.

h) Afrikaans is an African language. Afrikaans comes from a range of languages and was formed as a creole in the mouths of slaves. The first texts written in Afrikaans were not written by people who were “Dutch” – the first Afrikaans texts were written in Arabic script because that was the script used by the first Muslims in the Cape, many of whom came as slaves from East African hinterland, East African islands, South Asia and South East Asia. This makes Afrikaans not Dutch any more than Caribbean creole languages are English or Swahili Arabic. At the same time, this once creole, once defiled by the Dutch, then became appropriated for Afrikaner nationalism in a manner that ensured that it could be used against the very people whose ancestors formed it and were punished for speaking it. Yes, someone who speaks Nederlands may understand parts of Afrikaans, and parts of Aukan (a Surinamese creole also formed by slaves using partly Dutch). However, Aukan is not Afrikaans is not Dutch, even if we do not dispute that they are related. At the same time, to say Afrikaans is African does not undo the fact that Afrikaans is also the language of wounding, misrecognition, displacement, oppression, apartheid. To honour part of our African ancestry we must remember the former because it was their mouths that crafted the creole and were punished for speaking it. To honour another part of our African ancestry, we must highlight the latter. For most Black South Africans growing up under apartheid, Afrikaans was the latter. For many Black South Africans (esp. some classified coloured), it was both. This is our thorny inheritance, and it all matters.

I hope we continue this conversation across all platforms. And, while I could have picked up the phone and had this conversation with Simphiwe in person, I chose not to. I think it is important to respond to what artists say in the public publicly – to honour the difficult task of making the important less privately. I am often very annoyed when people send me endless sms and emails disagreeing with me on something I deliberately wrote publicly, so that I have to engage them privately at the same time as engaging other responses publicly. It’s exhausting.


Posted on 2 November 2010, in South Africa nationalism, Southern African politics, things that suck and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. great work in breaking down the stock arguments.we often just leave it there and accept people’s opinions because of this idea of choice in the language question and education.the irony though,while propagating the use of marginalised african languages in education,kids still fail and they are uninterested in learning’s not cool enough for them…it’s almost as though we have to change an entire culture of thinking…just my 2 cents really

    • Athambile, I completely agree. I think that consciously making Afrikan languages “cool” is crucial. But it’s as though the current state thinks this will just happen on its own, or as though we don’t all know exactly WHY they are currently ‘uncool’. I suppose that those of us who feel strongly about this have to figure out how to make more interventions, and to amplify the existing ones.

  2. Wonderfully sound comments on language rights in South Africa. There are other not so evident reasons to pursue a vibrant and complex language structure in South Africa. I do, however, disagree with the “any black language will do” option offered. We can not simply sacrifice the rights of any language grouping in South Africa for a what will always be positioned as a a practical option. The reason for this approach is usually found in the never-ending “we cannot afford it” rhetoric of governments.
    Also, in South Africa both English and Afrikaans share terrible colonial histories. Will we simply shrug and walk away sacrificing the other languages as historical casualties? There is some good research that indicate that home-language schooling creates better educated pupils, better second language speakers and stronger local societal infrastructure. Afrikaans’s strength as language should be studied as well. The language flourished because the state required it as a tool. It required judges, teachers, professors, universities etc. All states know and understand that state spending is a tool that can be used in many ways to invest in the population of a country and through that investment create long term stability. Choosing language diversity and the concomitant infrastructure is not a bad option.

    • Absolutely, Wayne. I think studying how Afrikaans got to where it is is absolutely crucial to the picture. And the isolated fantastic efforts to develop various technological uses of the nine official languages other than English and Afrikaans should definitely have more state support. They are part of the solution. But alas!

  3. Pumla, thank you for posting. This is very good and long, long overdue! Our 11 language policy has FAILED and it is so sad. I watch and listen to our son speaking and switching easily between English and Swahili and can see the conceptual growth and understanding that he grows with…Next year, he begins with French…And yet! We had.have PANSALB… Lets put heads and hearts together as i believe in this most passionately. The wealth of our Beings articulated,shaped,mediated in languages which traverse worlds and borders within and without…

  4. I have argued for years that if the HA universities in SA were serious about transformation, they would demand that all teaching and admin staff had strong conversational fluency in the African languages most current among their students. T…hey would give staff 3-5 years to get this, if they didn’t have it, support them with teaching programmes, and fire them after the five years (5 is VERY generous) if they failed oral examinations. In the next 3 year, they’d all have to get up to basic teaching competence/ability to translate concepts/write notes/more… Most of the old dedicated monolinguals are exactly the same people who suggest that ‘excellence’ and ‘equity’ are opposing terms

  5. Thanks for sharing this Pumla. Its such an important debate; but it needs to go beyond debate to solid interventions. I’ve always found it paradoxical that the public broadcaster [with all its chaos] could pull off a semblance of multilingu…alism, which is firmly supported by the culture industry [with all the radio & tv content], but the education system can’t do this. Not even at tertiary level where most African language depts are perpetually on the verge of closing down. But I also agree, the corporate world needs to come to the party. And we need to invest tangible economic value in African langs. For as long as long as English and Afrikaans remain the languages of business, this will continue to be a battle with very few soldiers and fewer recruits.

  6. Someone said Afrikaans is Afrikan and I had this as a reply and I would like us to debate it: “A friend of mine who is dutch said about afrikaans that it sounds like a baby speaking dutch. As I’m Xhosa I do have some Khoisan blood in me and… in my language and I fail to make this connection you speak of. I cannot comment much about Arabic or Indian languages as I don’t see how they can be seen to be Afrikan. I also find it very hard to believe that the colonizer would be so determined to develop a slave language that is derived in a very small part from his own and force it down the throat of other blacks, while continuing to deny them their humanity and maintaining the purity of their race (except of course all the rapes everyone turned a blind eye on) and segregating everyone, seeing themselves as the chosen ones who were superior to all. I don’t this kind of a people altering their language so much that it would become Afrikanized. I do see them enforcing their culture on the ‘subhuman’ races, so they can better serve them, I see them installing themselves as the rightful Afrikans and relegating us to no identity as they strip us of our humanity, culture, identity. I’m open to a different understanding, but, at this moment this is my view on this. Bless”

  7. On the issue of studying more than 1 Afrikan language my piece does say you will study 3 languages, a national Afrikan language, your own Afrikan language and english or afrikaans as a third language. We could add sesotho or tsonga as a nat…ional language too, I’m not bothered by that. But I worry about overburdening the kids. My only concerned is us being divided as Afrikans and being united by colonial languages. My other concern is how our languages are stagnating as we do not evolve them to move with the times. And obviously cultural identity. And commerce

    • Smphiwe, obviously I agree with you completely on the logic of the languages to be studied. In other words, it is important that my child learns Afrikan languages at school properly, although it is not terribly important which ones, so I… totally get the argument you make about Zulu. I just disagree on one language for everybody (i.e. the status of Zulu in your argument, which I recognise may be more in the editing by the newspaper than verbatim what you wrote).Secondly, you and I both speak several languages and we are not burdened by these. I suppose children would not be forced to study more than three languages overall, but they could be encouraged to. That is my ideal. I still disagree about Afrikaans, but let’s keep talking.

  8. Can you elaborate on why you disagree with the one language policy as right now when we dont speak the same language we revert to english? Right now me and you are communicating in English because it is a language everyone understands. so you see, I did suggest isiZulu as a national language to replace English, while still holding on to our different Afrikan languages in our provinces/regions. I would even add to that kiSwahili as a continental language.

  9. I hadnt been here for a while – big mistake! Thanks for this excellent piece most of which could be applied across the continent except for possibly Egypt. In the case of Nigeria for example which has over 300 languages some of which also have quite distinct dialects such as Ijaw and Yoruba. There has been some discussion on which languages should be taught in school and for how long. My feeling is whatever language is indigenous to the area should be the language of instruction with possibly another indigenous language and English taught separately [I am not clear on what you refer to as third level?]. Right now we have a situation whereby children are growing up unable to speak the language[s] of their parents. Or they are able to speak but cannot write another language. Or most commonly they speak a mis mash of various languages – which is not a negative but surely it is better to speak at least one fluently. In short children are growing up in Nigeria without being really fluent in any Nigerian language – including myself and at some point some of those languages which are spoken by relatively small numbers of people will be lost forever and with them histories and those “meanings” and “concepts” which cannot be so easily translated. I would add that parents also have some responsibiliity. I ask myself why my father speaks 4 languages fluently and can get by in a couple of others yet his children are monolingual in English! You also have a situation where the more “prestigeous” a school the more likely it is to only teach English – such is the legacy of what Fela calls “Colonial Mentality”

  10. we can talk about this subject till the end of time but at the moment it’s quite clear in a couple of generations most of our African languages will be relics at some dingy museums unless we as black South Africans do something about it no matter how small. Of course articulating the matter is the first step for which I applaud pumla and simphiwe. What’s next, is making the languages cool as one of the commentators have stated, and I believe it’s making it cool to the kids that’s crucial.

    And in this day and age anything cool is found online, so I say we put the languages online in as many exciting forms as possible and the kids will follow. Enough writing and I’ve started with this though it’s not going as fast as I want it to go see

  1. Pingback: A Response to Simhiwe Dana on Language « radical africa

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