If Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga had an appreciation for Scottish waters, this lowly newspaperman would be dashing out to buy her a three-decade-old bottle of the good stuff.
On Friday, Motshekga entered the book of heroes following her announcement that, from next year, every child entering Grade 1 would be compelled to learn a language other than English and Afrikaans. This may sound like a no-brainer, considering that South Africa adopted an 11-official-language policy more than 20 years ago and the majority of the population speaks languages other than English as their mother tongue.
Motshekga has been passionate about both mother tongue instruction and the teaching of African languages from the time she was in charge of education in Gauteng. Since moving to the national sphere, where she is able to shape policy, she has been increasingly vocal about it and has accelerated the development of the instruments to make it happen.
Emphasising the value of multilingualism, Motshekga argued that “the whole question of psychological alienation of Africans culturally and linguistically does not disappear with freedom”.
“You know, in our country, if you speak English well, probably you are a clever African; worse still, if you speak it with an ‘accent’, you are the best,” she said.
In June, she spoke about her commitment to strengthen all the official languages.
“Through the promotion of African languages, we can address some aspects of social cohesion. As a country, we will better communicate and understand each other if we understand those cultural and language idiosyncrasies that at times isolate us in our own land,” she said.
The destruction of African languages is one of the biggest crimes of the post-1994 order. It is a tragic irony that, after all the years of struggle for dignity and equality, the advent of democracy heralded the demise of indigenous languages. Once we were done with the Constitution-making process, the lofty ideals of language equality were quickly forgotten. We stampeded towards having English as the dominant and increasingly sole medium of communication.
It is painful to admit that African languages enjoyed better protection and promotion under apartheid than they do in the era of freedom. For their own evil and diabolical reasons, the apartheid rulers forced blacks to have “tribal identities”. This meant separate residential areas and schooling for people of different ethnic groups. The Group Areas Act also confined blacks to townships, and apartheid economics kept blacks in the underclass.
Under these conditions, languages thrived. With little official support, they developed organically. There was a wealth of literature as authors fed a hungry market – from primary school to tertiary level, as well as to leisure reading. Radio plays spawned great stories and township theatre boomed.
Then came freedom and, with it, upward mobility. With upward mobility came aspiration. The upwardly mobile and aspirational found African languages rather backward and uncool, and turned their backs on them. Thus began the sad decline of indigenous languages.
It seems the political establishment had not in its wildest dreams envisaged such an eventuality. Like deer caught in the headlights, they stood bewildered as the take-up of African languages in schools and universities dwindled. They looked on as the anglicising of South Africa gnawed at one of the key repositories of indigenous knowledge. Publishers lost interest in a market they saw as having no future. Anchors and deejays on the SABC’s African-language radio stations proved they were cool by mixing it up. Only Afrikaans speakers felt the need to fight this anglicisation. Their politicians, businesspeople and academics fought a stoic and justified battle for their language – albeit, at times, the battle has been used for ulterior purposes. Not so the speakers of the other nine indigenous languages.
In the absence of political backing from the top, the Pan SA Languages Board – whose stated mandate is to protect and promote all languages – was powerless. Successive heads and employees of the institution, all of them individuals committed to the cause, could do nothing, as they were regarded as just a necessary irritant by those in power.
Now we find ourselves in a profound crisis that is going to require hard work and tons of money to resolve. Just like the turnaround of neglected CBDs has taken billions that need not have been spent had the decline been forestalled, so the reversal of the destruction of African languages is going to cost a fortune.
Language is not just a nice-to-have. In its words, idioms, proverbs and richness, it houses vast knowledge – not just historical and cultural knowledge, but deep scientific knowledge too. To allow a language to die is to kill centuries, and sometimes millenniums, of knowledge. It is sabotage.
At least Motshekga has now launched this battle in earnest. If only she had an appreciation for the rivers of Speyside