Exorcising the imperialist in

Exorcising the imperialist in your tongue

Language politics has taken centre-stage in South Africa, often under the banner of #AfrikaansMustFall. But what would a truly “decolonised” language landscape in South Africa look like?

Exorcising the imperialist in

It’s an odd thing, seeing the decolonial student movement demand English-only education. English is after all the colonial language par excellence. Afrikaans, on the other hand, has home-grown bona-fides: first spoken as a Dutch creole, it was at first rejected by the settler population for not being “pure” enough. Today, only 40% of people whose home language is Afrikaans are white.

In Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o describes the imposition of European languages on Africa as doing to African spirits what guns and bullets did to their bodies. Colonialism systematically debased and undermined African languages and culture, imposing Christianity and a reverence for European art and history.

Is Afrikaans, which was also suppressed under British rule, experiencing a similar colonial obliteration by the students, and the university councils that are slowly giving in to their demands?

Not exactly. At one level, the moment we are in is not about language at all, but about fairness. The success of Afrikaans as an academic language required massive public investment from the state, an investment that was explicitly targeted at uplifting white Afrikaners. And it worked: children educated in that system have thrived, both in South Africa, and where they have settled around the world.

So, that was unfair enough at the time. But what compounded the unfairness post-1994 was the failure of the most prominent universities to lead the way in making similar investments in other languages. Although signs and names were changed in a way that hinted at linguistic diversity, the only real concession, especially at formerly Afrikaans-only institutions, was an awkward mix of English and Afrikaans.

If investment had been fair – if students could study, research, and learn in the language they feel most comfortable in – then it is possible that Afrikaans would not stick out as a bastion of white privelege and exceptionalism. Die Taal has been the victim of bad language policy, and a failure to invest in all South African languages.

If you think that English is the “international language” of research, and that teaching and researching in other languages is a waste of time, consider Sweden. They have 14 world-class universities (a couple of which usually rank in the Top 100) where you can study, research, and publish in Swedish. And yet there are fewer speakers of Swedish in the world than isiZulu.

But, many will complain, we simply cannot afford a fair language policy, and comparisons to Sweden are laughable.

OK: so Sweden has 14 universities (and 16 public colleges): could we not just start with one good isiZulu university? UKZN has been trying, insisting that staff and students learn basic isiZulu and conducting some of their tutorials and lectures, and supporting some publications, in that language. Wits has a new policy on the table which, if properly funded, could see isiZulu and South African Sign Language join Sesotho and English as official languages of teaching, learning, and research. Other universities are getting on board.

This does require considerable investment. But can higher education in South Africa afford to continue indefinitely, setting a colonial tone in the way it is structured? What are the long-term costs of ignoring our linguistic diversity?

Thirty years have passed since wa Thiong’o made the call for “the rediscovery and resumption of our language… a regenerative reconnection with the millions of revolutionary tongues in Africa and across the world demanding liberation”. Wa Thiong’o himself has written mostly in Gikuyu since then.

So long live Afrikaans as a language of teaching, learning, and research, but never at the expense of isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho, Sepedi, Setswana, xiTsonga, Tshivenḓa, or Siswati, or isiNdebele, nor, for that matter, South African Sign Language.