Language Problem in South Africa

(April 20, 2011)

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 society members , as happened in South Africa in 1994, no true reconciliation of the different communities can take place unless the language problem has been solved, as well as the problem of economic inequality. We have, so far, failed in South Africa to solve these major problems. In a recently released UN Report, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, and Buffalo City (East London) have been mentioned as the most unequal cities in the world in terms of the distribution of resources among the inhabitants. Years ago, President Mbeki, paraphrasing Disraeli, spoke in Parliament about the two nations within our country, the economically 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.

The language problem pre-dates the Apartheid regime. It was a feature of colonialism worldwide, where the main dividing line was colonizer and the colonized: the colonized had to learn the language of the colonizer, and there was no provision for the learning of the languages of the colonized by the colonizer. Colonialism and racism emerged as twins. A new stratification of humankind emerged, which attached the highest prestige and value to Europeans (White) at the top, and the lowest prestige and value to Africans (Black) at the bottom of the ladder. All others, Asians, Arabs, and people of mixed race, were placed and valued in-between; those in-between were closer in language and psychology to Europeans than to Africans. African languages were given the lowest prestige and value, while the languages of the colonizer were given the highest prestige and value, and were considered the premier languages to be learned by all society members.

The unity and reconciliation we celebrate is shallow, embracing a thin layer of educated, economically well-off Africans and the upper sections of the White, Indian, and Coloured communities. The unemployed, those threatened with unemployment, and the poor, of all races, are in their hearts and minds marginally involved in this celebration. However, all members of African, Indian and Coloured communities celebrate the fact that the cruel heel of political and police oppression was removed from their lives in 1994.

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 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 ordinary members of the African community.  Every language contains the person, culture, mind, and philosophy of the people whose language you speak and read. Economic and legal equality, genuine democracy, and equality of languages, are the most immediate and effective spiritual and mental unifier of members of society.

For decades, the pressure of colonialism, the racially-determined ownership of the economy, and the law, compelled Africans, Indians, and Coloureds to learn English and Afrikaans, so that there could be necessary economic interaction between Africans, Whites, Indians and Coloureds. However, this has, so far, been a one-sided process. Remember Maria Louw’s song “50-50”, about a very unfair love relationship, in which she gives way above 50 per cent, and the man in return gives a tiny percent. She says that in a true relationship, the man and woman must meet half-way. By the pressure of colonialism, colonial ownership of the economy, and colonial law, the African was compelled to give over 90 per cent in the `love’ relationship with the White community; but the White community in return has barely given 10 per cent in the love relationship. The African went 90 per cent of the way towards the White population; but the White population came only 10 per cent towards the African community. Hence, the two communities are still strangers to one another.

Indians and Coloureds must also learn African languages, so that a true `love’ relationship can emerge, creating brotherhood and sisterhood among all. 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, where the colonized were compelled to learn the colonizer’s language, but the colonizer was not compelled to learn the languages of the colonized.

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 spiritual and philosophical genocide: you are killing the people whose language you do not take seriously; 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 world culture. This contribution is largely the impact of the culture, literature, science, and philosophy of the particular people largely through their language. The African people have not been allowed to stand forth to make their contribution to world culture. 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 –Western literatures, philosophies, sciences, and arts. Whites, Indians, Coloureds and Africans, educated in the Western mold, through Western languages, have become spiritually and intellectually impoverished as a result of the failure to absorb into their personalities the spiritual and cultural wealth of indigenous African people through indigenous African languages. You absorb the spiritual wealth of any community, first and foremost, through that community’s language, through its 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. Government should chart the way forward towards true national unity and reconciliation by making it policy that Whites, Indians and Coloureds should learn the language of the majority African population in which they live; just as Africans are compelled by circumstances and law to learn English and Afrikaans; that Nguni-speaking people should learn a Sesotho language, and that Sotho-speaking people should learn a Nguni language. The Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Blade Nzimande, has announced that the department is considering a policy which shall make the study of an African language a requirement for a B. A. degree. Actually, the policy making it mandatory for all to learn the languages of our fellow citizens, including African languages, should begin in primary school. The same policy should apply to immigrants in the country. We should make the pursuit of Cultural Studies one of the top priorities in forging national unity and reconciliation. Language departments should be mobilized to teach all citizens and immigrants the languages prevailing in the entire society. A truly educated person is one who has absorbed into his/her personality the spiritual and cultural wealth of all the peoples of the nation in which he/she is a part, and of all the peoples of the world. That, of course, is impossible to achieve fully, 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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