Writing in Indigenous Languages.

by Mongane Wally Serote

October 2019

Twenty-Three years ago, the democratic Parliament in our country legislated for the Pan South African Language Board(Pansalb) to be in place.

The legislation was categoric in declaring that south Africa has eleven official languages. It was also categoric in stating that nine (9) of the eleven, which are African languages-that is indigenous languages-must be protected, developed and promoted because they had been disadvantaged during the apartheid era.

Both material and human resources were deployed behind the Pansalb to ensure that these indigenous languages are developed and promoted by instituting the Pansalb Board.

Lexicographical committees were legislated into place in the nine provinces of our country, through provincial committees, to ensure the promotion, innovation and protection of the vocabulary, letter, spirit, content and context of the languages. We must here, add the Khoi and San languages, including braille and sign languages.

We have gathered here today-twenty-three years later, I suppose as Government and organs of civil society also, after the Pansalb was promulgated by law, to be a platform upon which not just the indigenous languages’ literature, but the languages as well, have to be promoted.

Before we can go any further, in my view, we must ask ourselves – have we succeeded to carry out the mandate given us by the Pansalb legislation or not? If not, why not?

The significance of the establishment of the Pansalb is not only that its contribution would emancipate the African voice within the diversity of our nation, but that its objective is to contribute to the resolution of National question, together with other principles.

We are gathered here today, to discuss in a conference the importance of writing in indigenous languages. Is that statement raising the issue that there is a problem writing in indigenous languages, and that there are other related challenges we have to address or that since that twenty-three years ago, we have made strides in implementing the principles of the legislation which put the Pansalb in place? Or are we merely responding to the Unesco call for the promotion of indigenous literature? or are we taking this opportunity given us by Unesco, to review our progress in this regard?

I am raising this issue in this manner, really to ask us whether we have a common objective in terms of our approaching this extremely important issue which is one of the cornerstones of Nation building.

That is the question, which if answered, we, in my view, can justify our having gathered here today.

I became aware only recently, how home languages -isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, Setswana, Sesotho, Sepedi, isiNdebele, XiTsonga and TshiVenda rank statistically. They rank in that order-that is, in terms of how many people speak each of those languages as their home language. In other words, as their mother tongue language.  

Except for Afrikaans, all of the other languages are Bantu languages. Of course there is also the Khoi and San Languages which we must keep on the national agenda.

While it must be a principle, as the Pansalb legislation stated, that these Bantu and other South African Languages must be protected, promoted, innovated and developed, history has not been kind to that principle.

The benefit or detriment to those languages, in terms of the democratic dispensation which emerged twenty-five years ago, excluding Afrikaans, we shall discover, has been to almost relegate them to the dustbin of history. That is the implication if coming generations, as it is the case now, abandon indigenous languages.

The issue then is what is to be done, in terms that they are in the process of being obliterated? Is this not the key question facing us here today?

How can there be indigenous literature separate from its languages? Because we know that the languages have been disadvantaged and therefore they were powerless, how can they develop a literature?

The literature does exist. That literature has existed. However, as with the indigenous languages, it has fallen off from the national agenda even, during the era of the democratic dispensation.

A corrective action which must be embarked upon to give life to these languages, seeks that we look at how other nations have promoted their languages nationally and internationally. 

The most empowered language, English, dominates the world stable. English is empowered by the British empire. It is empowered by the world power, the United States of America. It is empowered by imperialism, remnants of colonialism and racialism. English is anchored on the most powerful currency, the Sterling, and therefore has the world industrial and corporate power and base behind it. 

However, as powerful as it is in the whole world, English is not the language of the majority of the people of the world.

The world is multilingual. Because the world consists of the majority of the poor people, those people have not been exposed to the language of the powerful. Because of the power behind English, especially imperialism, English discriminates, and excludes as a base of power. On the other hand, Portuguese, Spanish, French do hold fort for their speakers in the world.

The sort of new comer language in the world, Mandarin, which unifies the second largest economy in the world currently, will as English and the other European languages have done, demand the attention of the theatre of the world. It will do so also because it is strongly empowered by digitization which catapults it into the 4IR.

The question implied by raising the potential of indigenous literature, is: how must indigenous languages be empowered?

Swahili is a Bantu language spoken in Tanzania, Burundi, Congo (Kinshasa) Kenya, Mayotte, Mozambique, Oman, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Uganda, UAE and the USA. Around 5 million people speak Swahili as a native language, and a further 135 million speak it as a second language. Swahili, as with all the South African, African languages, is a Bantu language.

If as both organic and conventional intellectuals, here in South Africa, we were to be intellectuals in the deep meaning of that brave word, what suggestions must we make, which must impact on the South African nation?

The question which we must ask is – would that impact catapult both the concepts of the African Renaissance(AR) and Pan Africanism (PA)to different heights and levels? Supported by the unity of Africa, would its majority, the youth, be the human resource to depend on if empowered? What we must put high on the agenda in this regard, in my view, is that African youth as with all youth in the world, are not foreign to digitization. How do we put African heritage in their spirit, minds and hands for them to elevate heritage, which is inherent in the indigenous languages?

They are a human resource, they are not only in the majority, but their being unemployed and therefore their being poor renders them not only vulnerable, but also, besides danger being close to them as their heart beats, they are rendered to be a potential threat to the nations which gave birth to them as they feel being discriminated against.

What can and must be their role in the innovation and engineering of indigenous languages on the continent?

What must we say and do to achieve the learning from history as we also transform the present challenge of IK languages which must become the fulcrum from which we make dynamic, the cultural content of language, and the centrality of language as a cultural expression for the future?

We are faced by a question which we must answer: Who are we? We must return to answer this question given the history, politics, culture, heritage, economy and balance of power in the world in terms of the indigenous languages.

That in my view is the question we must pose and which we must answer, as conventional and organic African intellectuals.

We may decide here, and that cannot be incorrect to so decide, that both the Government and the Private Sector in partnership with the Organs of civil society must put both human and material resources behind the resuscitation of the empowering of both the indigenous languages and their literatures.

This as a redress processes for the history, culture and heritage of the disadvantaged majority, but also as a manner to enrich the diversity of our nation, by emancipating the African voice within our most cherished diverseness and whole as a country and as a nation.

It therefore also becomes extremely important for us to shift from fetish slogans and fashionable phrases.

The Government must empower the partnership between the conventional and organic intellectuals in this country. It has to, on the basis of the constitution. We are also empowered by the constitution to seek the means to make real what the constitution of our country has claimed for us. It states in part in its Preamble that:

“We, the people of South Africa,

Recognize the injustices of our past,

Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land,

Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country and

Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it united in our diversity… “

I do not know whether the organic intellectuals are represented here. If not, that in itself is a grievous fault.

That because the principle of the dynamism inherent in the “diversity…” of our nation must never ever be compromised, because it defines the principle of inclusivity. Be that as it may, as we define the way forward, for the challenge facing us now, and as we reinstate that principle of “…diversity…”, the question is: has government, which we so easily, as we abdicate our responsibilities as intellectuals and nationals, facilitated for us to intervene and to unfold a redress factor in this process?  

There is the Panslab Act, which as stated above should have made it possible for us to do so. There is the Customary Act, and recently, the IKS and the Bongaka Acts which, besides the regulatory committee, created large steps to empower the organic intellectuals, the IKS holders and practitioners-have been passed.

How can these nationals, who are empowered by our constitution, be used to decolonize the diversity of history, culture and heritage in our country? Does this question not raise the key role of the Department of Arts and culture in so far as the issue of Indigenous Knowledge Systems is concerned?

I am suggesting here, that it seems to me that we must define the strategic objective of our task based on the cultural content of IKS. We must do so also as a means to deepen the non-racial, non-sexist and democratic cultural context and content within our cultural expression as a nation.

This is the opportunity we must seize as we respond to the call by Unseco for countries in the world to put indigenous literature writing on their national agendas, because that is the only option we have for the humanness, stability, progress and prosperity of our country.

Besides that, is this not the basis upon which we can empower us as a nation to pick up what we had not only propagated, but which we were implementing in the first fifteen years of our democratic dispensation as a country?

We had responded to our Continental obligations, as a country, by hosting the transition from the Organization of African Unity(OAU) to the African Union(AU) and thus deepened the possibility for Pan Africanism and African Renaissance on the Continent, in the Diaspora and for humanity?  

Those are the strategic objectives which would not only elevate the stature of the indigenous languages and its literatures, but would empower the poor, the unemployed and the discriminated against. So would we be close, if we respond to that strategic objective, to being able not only to nurture the national question and a nation anchored on diversity, but we would also contribute to the unity of the diverseness of Africa.

We would be, if we do so conscious of the fact that there are now, extremely serious propositions on the agenda of humankind. These propositions have historical, cultural, heritage and social implications and consequences. I dare say, negative implications and consequences for the oppressed and exploited of the world.

As it was with the emergence of capitalism and imperialism in the past, humanity is now faced by a major potential social rupture which will completely redefine human relations- that is the revolution which is already in our homes which is quietly being introduced by digitization, which we must embrace.

We have to nurture and develop IKS and all related matters as they are expressed by the constitution of our country. However, I have also raised the issue of our continental obligations, which, as we witnessed recently were almost absolutely compromised by criminals, and also by planned counter revolution. Since when is our Country, South Africa, which has deep roots on the continent, been a threat and enemy of the Peoples of the continent?

We as south Africans, and this is also attested to by our Constitution whose roots as Solomon Mahlangu stated, at the gallows, before the apartheid regime hung him when he said:

“Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the fight, my blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom, Aluta Continua.”

Does that not say to us that we must ask ourselves what, according to Solomon are “…the fruits of freedom…” is this not part of the definition of what must be our strategic objective…that is” …Culture…” which is the “…fruit of the history of our struggle…”” (A Cabral) but also that we must “…Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land…”

In other words, the indigenous languages, and therefore the indigenous literatures, must as they have in the National Anthem, also be able to express a history and a culture of patriotism. So are nations built!

I am suggesting that unless we note and acknowledge that that is the size and magnitude of our responsibility in this conference- what else could it be? I am not denigrating the Unesco declaration. I am suggesting that we seize the opportunity which that declaration bestows on us, to nurture permanency for the nourishing of the indigenous literature.

I am also raising another crucial matter – would it be to the advantage of Pan Africanism and the African Renaissance, which in essence, are the phenomena calling for Africans, where ever we are, and for the world also, to participate in the reawakening, recreating, rebirthing, reclaiming and reinstating the cradle of Humankind-Africa?

The matter of placing indigenous literature not only on the national agendas in African countries, but through a consciousness which says on the continent is very urgent. We must note that since twenty-three years ago, the train has been long gone on this subject in our country. It is the Bantu languages which are still not developed. They are not learnt, promoted    or developed. The nation, leave alone the children of this nation, are not exposed to these languages.

How is anyone to appreciate their literatures which they are not learning, or studying? It is therefore these languages and humanity, which, besides disappearing with the history, culture, the heritage, knowledge and the wisdom they carry- which are the poorer.

True, not all is lost, I can hear all of us say. All the rural areas of our country, are the basin in which, as with the history, culture and heritage of this nation, are still being nourished, even against the greatest odds.  That is correct, but that does not mean that there are no serious threats in terms of the subject at hand. The challenge we are facing, that is if the statistics I quoted above are correct, is, what is the social engineering which we must engage to correct this dire situation which is facing our heritage and legacy?

Is it not correct to suggest that the provincial lexicographic committees, must, if they have collapsed, be reinstated, if they still exist, should it not be that they are given a new mandate based on the strategic objective which I have defined? What we must make sure during this conference is: to evaluate the twenty-three-year lifespan of the Pansalb -has it executed or not executed its mandate?

Once we have done that then the question is:  given the result what must be done to repair, to strengthen or to further improve the Pansalb mandate so as to further develop and promote the indigenous languages and literatures of our country so that they inform the national question and nation building project?

The objective here must be to contribute to the emancipation of the African voice within the South African linguistic and cultural diversity, as we also contribute to reply to the question of the South African National question?

Who are we as a people, as a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South African Nation in the shrunk world order?

That is our short term strategic objective. I am also accepting that we have no choice but to commit to the development and promotion of the indigenous languages and literatures, whatever our context. However, we do also have to define an intermediary strategic objective.

I stated above that there was a time in our country when, as a nation, we rigorously vigorously participated in the nurturing and promoting of Pan Africanism and the African Renaissance not only in our country but also on the continent, within the African diaspora and the world. The African Union is elevating Swahili to become the continental official language, and we were also witness recently when the current President of Tanzania also so pronounced with regards to Sadc

What must this African reality now mean for us as South Africans, especially since we are opportunistically, because of recent criminally sponsored events, regarded as being xenophobic?

Our intermediary strategic objective must be to enter all the discussions on the Continent, positive or negative, even on the subject of African languages and literatures, because as Kwame Nkhrumah said, if one country is not free on our continent we are all not free. We must all participate in the denuding of all forms of colonial and imperialist discourse and promote Pan Africanism and the African renaissance cultural expression.

That is because language is a cultural expression, and what that means is that the centrality of the cultural expression is the language. As South Africans we are, to state an obvious fact, Africans. We have to participate in all of the issues which are of Africa and African because we are Africans.

We do so in the era of the AU. We have to be part and parcel of the discussions about a United Africa. One of the most important aspects which can also facilitate for this possibility, is language.

This is a matter which the AU is debating and discussing; it is debated and discussed to the extent that one of the key buttressing structures which may be similar to the Pansalb, which was put in place in 2001 “…to harmonize languages on the continent and to safeguard any which are on the verge of becoming extinct…” is the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) which is based in Bamako, Mali. In brief, if we look at the work which ACALAN has embarked upon and its outcomes, it is staggering.

ACALAN has recommended that the language issue on the continent must be stripped all and any issues of the colonial and imperialist hangovers, and seek the African expression for that for the unity of Africa. This was done informed by the fact that one of the most debilitating factors on the continent is the culture of tribes, whose impact has been to empower colonialism through divide and rule. Understanding that culture has the greatest potential to unite a people, the colonialists implemented policies which contradicted that possibility. They sponsored and exaggerated divisions of Africans.

Because of the work of Acalan since 2001, as Africans and moreso future African generations, will grow up and nurture a culture informed by the fact that there has never been any two-thousand (2000) languages on the continent, but seventeen languages.

We and those generations will also have a consciousness that inspires a cultural knowledge and willingness to act and engage language as a cultural vehicle for the unification of Africa. We will also understand the utilitarian function of language. That language can be a tool for attaining objectives; that Merchants will formulate a language for purposes of ease of communication among themselves across the continent, as an example.  

The Swahili Language Board of Southern Africa(SLBSA) which is based at the University of the Western Cape(UWC) it would seem to me, must engage this strategic objective.

If Pansalb takes the responsibility to safeguard the South African indigenous languages and their literature from becoming extinct, complimenting the Pansalb effort, the Swahili language Board of Southern Africa must contribute to the unification of Africa, by creating the possibility for the teaching of Swahili in our country. It must develop and promote indigenous literature by developing skills for the translation of south African indigenous literature into Swahili.

It is that kind of crosspollination creativity, from which Swahili as a language has emerged and developed, which contains a promise for not only African unity, but also which will define African freedoms. This is not and must not be a means to do away with the South African indigenous languages. It must however be a means to develop a consciousness to seek and be creative with every and all possibilities which can contribute to and result in the unification of Africa.

Is it not obvious that because Swahili is a Bantu language, it is an option to be considered for our unity as Africans? If statistics state that “…135 million(Africans) speak Swahili as a second language...”  Why should it not be that institutions of higher learning, here in South Africa, should not collaborate, to be African institutions in the first place by consciously and deliberately creating a Swahili context and content in these institutions?

What were /are institutions of higher learning created and founded for? Surely, not to perpetuate the aims and objectives of colonialism and imperialism.

Let me conclude by posing a question. Is it correct to state that language is a cultural expression. That to state that the power of the cultural expression, is inherent in languages?

If that is true, is it then not correct to say that the engineering and innovation of the indigenous languages, and therefore of indigenous literature also, has inherent in it, the potential to affirm and entrench both Pan Africanism and the African Renaissance cultural expression?

That potential would be much more so, if, because the AU would have pronounced Swahili to be one of the official languages of the AU, we would consciously and deliberately empower the Swahili language through the translations from the engineered and innovated indigenous languages to create an enriched context and content of Swahili literature?

I ask us to explore the possibility of this potential.

I thank you.

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