By Hadebe Hadebe

Every time when the topic of Africa’s economic underdevelopment comes up, we tend to look for the obvious and shy away from talking about such things as language. The whole of Africa has freedom but without a language. A language is an enabler for nations to succeed. Africa is stuck with languages that its people barely understands. Why?

Humans are not only about hard-core material things like money and housing but they are spiritual beings too. Language is at the centre of human existence and how he views himself or herself in relation to others. Language also helps humans to communicate with fellow human beings. Without language human life would be quite tricky and even more difficult to follow.

In the case of South Africa, it is a great pity that black children are taught vernacular language(s) for a period of 12 years but without real usage for any of them to help them succeed in life. A language is only about poetry, fables and getting a good pass mark. Consequently, it is such a struggle for them to use their education acquired in English or any other foreign language in daily situations.

A person is subjected to torture of learning a language like Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa for the entire school life, only for that language to disappear without trace when he or she needs it most. Teaching a language is not only for speaking but the purpose of language goes far deeper than just communicating. It has a role in human development and sharing knowledge.

Perhaps Africans are amongst a selected number of people in the world who never receive their education and knowledge in a language they fully understand. Jonathan Schrire says the reason for this anomaly is due to the fact that “There are no jobs for someone who knows only Xhosa or Sotho. You can’t get a tertiary education knowing only Venda or Tswana. You can’t get a degree in physics using Zulu.”

But, should this be the case?

Let us take a scenario of the English, Japanese or Spanish. Their first language speakers get taught in their mother tongue at junior and high schools not just for the sake. Their books for science, economics, engineering, history, etc. are written in these languages. Thus, a language helps a person to step up to the complex world of scientific, structured thought at university and other situations.

This transition does not end in the classroom. The language is also instrumental in helping the person adjust and adapt in the world of work. The corporate language exists in their vernacular – there are no gaps between what their ‘worlds’. However, black people in South Africa have to contend with being forced to leave a part of them at home once they join employment ranks.

Language is a potent mechanism for culture, tradition and religion. Without straining your brain, you can already see that language teaching keeps a person, his thoughts and life as single complete unit. Now think of black children and their brutal divorce from their mother tongue – they become a maze of conflicting ideas and their lives are equally displaced. They have to live with this reality until death, and their children too will be subjected to the same atrocity. Being prevented from speaking one’s language is a worse form of abuse that a person can ever endure.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o says that the problem with current education model in Africa, which obviously has very strong foundations in coloniality, is that it continues “to alienate the educated from his immediate environment”. Education in a foreign language removes one from his or her roots – the educated folks tend to wear oversized glasses with a tainted lens borrowed from hell. This leads to gross misinterpretation of one’s settings and environment. This is called the miseducation of a black person.

M’zizi Samson Kantini sees a language as “an effective tool of cultural domination and control. When I impose my own language on another, and succeed in replacing that person’s language with my own, I am effectively removing the very symbol of their essence, and replacing their identity with mine.” An educated misfit is easier to control through language and ideas consumed via instruction in a foreign language. Institutions of learning are about stripping blacks naked rather than empowering them.

At times most of us fight with Afrikaner nationalism which propagates for usage of the Afrikaans language and symbols in all situations. This is a just and noble cause – but our counter argument is very flawed because we still demand to be taught or addressed in English. What kind of madness is this? Preference of a devil over another. Hence, the Afrikaner groups and intellectuals do not take anyone serious who opposes the use of their language in schools, universities and other settings. 

Blacks have not advanced an alternative which includes the development of indigenous languages in knowledge delivery (teaching) and  its creation. The truth is that none of us have really engaged this contradiction in how we deal with ‘white dominance’. Our refusal to speak or learn in Afrikaans essentially doesn’t help our languages in any event. Both English and Afrikaans are foreign languages and therefore do not advance our cause. 

None is better than the other.

Language is most of all about identity and how one views himself or herself in the bigger scope of things. The Zambian analyst Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa is definitely correct to point out that “Language is a symbol of identity”. The question is, how do blacks form and protect their identity using English? How does English help black people to advance in social, economic and political terms? Who is the winner at the end of the day?

With the insistence that black children must be taught in a foreign language, this means that their identities are created from “takeaway cultures and also reflect a borrowed script, itself continuously edited by the owners to such an extent that we fail to keep pace and are ever behind”. This basically sums up what Africa goes through because colonialism never really left our shores as it manifests through language, with the help of the people who previously oppressed.

Wa Thiong’o continues to state, “the colonial utility of educating the African masses was discovered; creating empires of the mind”. This process continues to the present through language. It is a great concern that the so-called post-colonial state in Africa never really cut umbilical ties with former colonisers culturally, politically, economically and otherwise. Africans find it difficult to see themselves outside the shadow of their colonial master who also continues to reap all the rewards from this parent-child relationship.

Thus, the independent state is still dependent on intellectuals from European countries in the manner they view the world. Yet, we blame France for refusing to let go of its former colonies. Former English colonies such as South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya submit to the English Crown via the British Commonwealth. And, the continent fraternilises with oppressive and divisive identities such as Francophone, Anglophone and Lusophone. 

Besides political alliances, the world is arranged in language bubbles that are usually dominated by one or two countries. And African countries also belong in these groups due to colonial linkages. For example, Anglophone identity in Africa lends former English colonies to entirely depend on the US and Britain – socially, commercially and otherwise. The African countries participate as orphans who are looking for acceptance and assimilation. They carry a big bowl to beg for freebies and almost ask for condescension.

Former British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Africa a few years ago to check how the English satellite campuses in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa were doing. The visit came on the heels of a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in April 2018, an event that ensures that the Union Jack and its language are forever entrenched in former colonies. Disguised as diplomacy, the digressive agenda with Britain means that 10 Downing Street remains our spiritual home.

The British prime minister promised investments and jobs, without referring to stolen wealth from Africa. The parents would be encouraged to want their children to master English in order to access these jobs. Schirre admits that “every African mother wants her kids to learn English is because English is the language of employment – of jobs.” Unfortunately, English language imperialism goes far beyond jobs. It ensures that the colonial project remains intact even amongst the free, in a world of the free. 

It is no coincidence that when the Boers declared independence from Britain in the early 1960s, they not only withdrew from the British Commonwealth and discarded the British Sterling as a currency but they also increased usage of Afrikaans as a sign of breaking away from England. The apartheid government invested heavily in the development of Afrikaans from its low status of “kombuis taal” (kitchen language) to a language of science at university. This was a major psychological victory for them.

It is a pity that they laced this achievement with racism and brutality (apartheid). As a result, the Afrikaans language and Afrikaner identity became synonymous with apartheid. Maybe if this had taken place against a different setting, the Boers would be quoted positively in language and post-colonial studies. Now they are on an defensive because they lacked foresight. Afrikaans is no longer number one language in politics, commerce and culture at the end of apartheid. It has been replaced by English via the back door.

Language and politics and economics are intertwined. Both English and Afrikaans are languages imposed on Africans like Portuguese and French in other parts of the continent. Therefore, they cannot be divorced from oppression and pain. In defense of the usage of the language at university, Tuks’ Hein Willemse sees Afrikaans as “More than an oppressor’s language…” because it “is a creole language that evolved during the 19th century under colonialism in Southern Africa”. Willemse omits to say that the language was used to achieve apartness and exclusion.

Author Lily Marjorie wrote as far back as 1982 that “language and politics are very much intertwined in South Africa, as they are everywhere.” Unfortunately, in attempts to forge multilingualism in South Africa the indigenous languages lost out to history. Political freedom and democracy have not delivered more freedom for blacks to use their languages in formal set ups, and nobody seems to be disturbed by their marginalisation. 

As a language, formal Afrikaans nonetheless retained a strong European character so it was easier to “borrow” terminologies from sister languages including German, Dutch and English. One would argue that building the language was not necessarily that difficult but still worth looking at in any event. It is quite disappointing that no one deemed it necessary to develop a language, say, that combines Zulu and Xhosa as a symbol of freedom after the fall of apartheid. This language could and should be guaranteed at least 40 million speakers and dominance in various spaces including the arts, education, economics and politics. 

The rush was to dance to dull and boring melodies of the English, and re-creating a political entity was neglected for political expediency and submission. Like both Namibia and Zimbabwe before it, post-apartheid South Africa voluntarily submitted to the English crown without anyone forcing them to do so. And even Mozambique which was never under British rule rushed to join the Commonwealth in 1995, with the support of Nelson Mandela. To this day, Mozambique upper classes speak English and Portuguese. 

The kingdoms of eSwatini and Lesotho bow before another monarch in this ongoing political fiasco taking place in Africa. For Ngugi wa Thiong’o, English in Africa is a ‘cultural bomb’ that “continues a process of erasing memories of pre-colonial cultures and history and installs the dominance of new, more insidious forms of colonialism”. Our end as a people is fast-tracked through language and its related practices. It is more of case of ‘assimilate or die’ for Africans in as far as the issue of language is concerned.

Maybe one day many of us will turn against English like Ngugi wa Thiong’o did in 1986, when he dumped the English language to write books entirely in his native language, Gikuyu. However, with the economy still in the hands of others it is unlikely that even Lesetja Kganyago will ever make announcements in our beautiful Sepedi. Even companies coming into the South African market do not bother themselves with translating their materials into any of the local languages. 

Without a new mega language which is a hybrid of indigenous languages, as a compromise, it is impossible to achieve liberty and economic freedom in our lifetime. 

Siya yi banga le economy!