Who is our president talking to?

2020-02-04 01:15

I must start by confessing that I am a subscriber to the weekly letter from President Cyril Ramaphosa, titled From the desk of the President.

In some way this continues the tradition first established during the Thabo Mbeki presidency, when he put out a weekly missive titled Letter from the President, which was published on the ANC website every Friday and was widely read by the chattering classes and set the news agenda for the week ahead, rightly or wrongly.

Many commentators have written tomes on the importance of presidential communication.

I will therefore eschew this approach and rather focus on the language of presidential communication and, in this case, Ramaphosa’s communiqué.

A report by the SA Book Development Council, titled the National survey into the reading and book reading behaviour of adult South Africans 2016, clearly illustrates that the majority of the country’s adults do not read at all.

And those who do read, read in two languages, namely, English and Afrikaans, in that order.

And, unfortunately, it so happens that these are the languages of reading, writing and publishing in South Africa.

This applies to general trade publishing for leisure reading, academic and schoolbook, as well as scholarly publishing.

Even the SA Journal of African Languages is published in English.

This is a peer-reviewed research journal and is the official mouthpiece of the African Language Association of SA, established in 1979, and is devoted to the advancement of African (Bantu) and Khoisan languages and literatures.

It publishes papers, book reviews and polemic contributions of a scientific nature in any of the core areas of linguistics, both theoretical (for example, syntax, phonology, semantics) and applied (for example, sociolinguistic topics, language teaching, language policy), and literature, based on original research in the context of the African languages.

It is an irony that even discourses on the decolonisation of universities, as well as the curriculum, are propounded using a colonial language, namely English.

Therefore, if the majority of South Africans do not and cannot read in English, why is the president communicating with the population in English?

Or is his missive aimed only at the already knowledgeable chattering classes who are, unfortunately, not necessarily the majority in the country?

According to Stats SA’s Community Survey 2016, isiZulu is the most common home language spoken by 24.6% of the population, followed by isiXhosa (17%), Afrikaans (12.1%), Sepedi (9.5%), Setswana (8.8%), English (8.3%), Sesotho (8%), Xitsonga (4.2%), Siswati (2.6%), Tshivenda (2.4%) and isiNdebele (1.6%).

So the letter from the president is therefore aimed at a very small segment of the reading population.

If the letter is meant for the chattering classes, then it completely misses the point.

The chattering classes already receive an avalanche of information through print, electronic and social media.

However, the president’s constituency, the rural people across the country, who vote for the ANC, are the ones the president needs to be talking to.

And, unfortunately, it could be argued that the majority of them probably do not subscribe to the newsletter.

And they do not read in English.

So, if the president is to talk to that constituency, the means and language of communication need to be appropriate as well.

Of course it is easier to argue that it is more convenient to distribute the president’s letter in English as it is a “universal” language, whatever that means.

Be that as it may, think of the impact that initiative would make, if the letter From the desk of the President was made available online in all the 11 official languages as recognised in the Constitution.

And all you had to do was to read it in the language of your choice.

Since South Africa is a supposedly a multilingual country – although it could be convincingly argued that most South Africans are bilingual in that they either are proficient in their home language and in either English or Afrikaans, and that the majority of people are rather monolingual, meaning they are proficient only in their home language, it is incumbent on the president to speak to all South Africans and not some erudite citizens who have access to computers, emails and the internet.

And this is in the spirit of the Constitution that Ramaphosa helped to craft.

The letter should be published multilingually – but the distribution model also needs a rethink.

Not all South Africans have access to computers, the internet and/or data. The majority of the populace cannot even read or write in English.

And let’s not forget those who can communicate only in sign language and Braille.

It would be better if the letter could be recorded in all the vernacular languages so that those who cannot read or write can listen to the audio version, such as other news sites.

It could be aired across major radio stations and community radio stations.

It might seem like an unenviable task, Mr President, but was it not Nelson Mandela who said it seems impossible until it is done?

And the irony is not lost on me that I wrote this article in English and that you, by extension, are reading it in English.

Solani Ngobeni is a publishing director at the Centre for Scholarly Publishing Services csps.co.za and a convener of the 2020 Scholarly Publishing Conference: scholarlypublishingconference.co.za

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March 29 2020