The Language Problem in South Africa

The fact that the African population can communicate in English or Afrikaans with Whites, Indians, and Coloureds, but that Whites, Indians, and Coloureds, in general,  can not communicate with Africans in any of the indigenous languages of the African population, is a serious barrier to true national reconciliation in the country.

People in societies can be divided, among others, by economics, culture, law, and language. Even when law is removed as an instrument for dividing the people of a society, as happened in South Africa in 1994, no true reconciliation of the different communities can take place unless the problem of language has been solved, as well as the problem of economic inequality. We have, so far, failed in South Africa to solve the language problem, as well as the problem of poverty and underdevelopment. Years ago, President Mbeki, paraphrasing Disraeli, spoke in Parliament about the two nations within our country, the economic well-off nation, and the poor underdeveloped nation. The dividing line between these two nations coincides with the division of race, culture, and language. This is the most serious danger threatening the achievement of 1994, a mortal danger which must be addressed boldly and wisely with the correct policy to solve the language problem, and a correct policy to solve the problem of poverty and underdevelopment.

The unity and reconciliation we celebrate and boast about is very shallow and superficial –embracing a thin layer of educated, economically well-off Africans with the upper sections of the White, Indian, and Coloured communities. The larger bulk of the African community, the shaky working class, the vast poor and underdeveloped in cities, towns and rural areas, is not boasting about and celebrating this unity and reconciliation. The large bulk of the shaky working class in the White and Indian communities, as well as the vast poor of the Coloured community, are also not in this celebration and boasting of unity and reconciliation.

We need to forge intimate links between the various communities of our society through common languages. The biggest immediate barrier to reconciliation and creation of brotherhood and sisterhood among us all is the fact that members of the White, Indian, and Coloured communities are alien to the African community by virtue of the fact that they do not speak or read African languages. The ordinary African remains a stranger to members of the White, Indian, and Coloured communities; and the ordinary Indian, Coloured, and White person remains a stranger to members of the African community. Language contains the person, culture, and philosophy whose language you speak and read. Language is the most immediate, unconscious, and effective spiritual and mental unifier of people.

For decades, the pressure of colonial oppression, economics, and the law, compelled Africans, Indians, and Coloureds to learn English and Afrikaans, so that there could be necessary interaction between Africans, Whites, Indians and Coloureds. However, it has been, so far, a one-sided process. Remember Maria Louw’s song “50-50”, in which she complains that in the love relationship, she gives way above 50 per cent, and the man gives a tiny percent. She says that in a true relationship, the man must give 50 per cent, and the woman must give 50 per cent. By the pressure of economic needs, colonial oppression, and colonial law, the African has been compelled to give over 90 per cent in the human love relationship with the White community, therefore gaining knowledge of the White person, but the White person has barely given 10 per cent in the love relationship: consequently, the African still remains a stranger to the White person.

Indians and Coloureds must also learn African languages, so that there can develop a true love relationship between Indian, Coloured, and African communities. When you go to live in a foreign country, the first thing you do, upon reaching the country, is to learn the language of that country. That is what migrants did upon reaching all the nations they considered their equals –except when they went to settle in Africa and other colonies.

Through studying the language, art, music, dance, and literature of a people, you absorb into your personality the spiritual and cultural wealth of that community; your personality becomes richer and deeper. Chauvinism practiced in language policy is actually a form of genocide: you are killing the people whose language you have killed, and you yourself become spiritually impoverished and deformed. Goethe, the great German writer, said that world culture is like a great fugue, in which all nations, one after the other, stand forth to make contributions to the fugue. This contribution is made largely through language. Those of us who received Western education in Western language, were spiritually and mentally enriched through absorbing into our personalities the spiritual wealth of Western men and women. However, Whites, Indians, Coloureds and Africans, educated in the Western mold, through Western languages, have run the great danger of spiritual and intellectual impoverishment as a result of the failure to absorb into their personalities the spiritual and cultural wealth of indigenous African people. You absorb the spiritual wealth of the other person, first and foremost, through that person’s language, through their literature, music, art, dance, science and philosophy. I argued in Black Perspectives On Tertiary Institutional Transformation, edited by Sipho Seepe (1998) that the correct language policy of the new South Africa should be multi-lingualism. A truly educated person is one who has absorbed into his/her personality the spiritual and cultural wealth of all the peoples of the world. That, of course, is impossible to achieve, but we should be moving in that direction.


About Professor Herbert W. Vilakazi

Professor Herbert Vilakazi was born at Nongoma, KwaZulu/Natal, South Africa. He received his tertiary education at Columbia University, and at the New School For Social Research, both in New York City, USA. He has taught sociology and other social sciences at various tertiary institutions in and around New York City (City College of City University, Essex County College in Newark, Livingstone College, and State University of New York). He has also taught at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town, and University of Zululand. He served as Deputy-Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission from 1998 to 2004. He has also served as Special Advisor to the Premier of KwaZulu/Natal (2005-2007). He is Chairperson of Vilakazi Development Strategies.
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