A boy writes a tribute to the late Nelson Mandela while visiting Parliament on December 9, 2013. The writer says that with the growing dominance of English, more needs to be done to save indigenous languages and their cultures.

Were the other 10 official languages to die, one by one, and be replaced by English, it would be a monumental tragedy, says Tinyiko Maluleke.

Johannesburg - Contrary to popular belief, the most memorable and most powerful speech the young Nelson Mandela heard was delivered, not by someone reciting William Henley’s Invictus, nor by some actor delivering a Shakespearean soliloquy. Rather, it was Chief Meligqili, son of Dalindyebo, who delivered the speech that aroused the political consciousness and kindled the spirit of the young Mandela.

The speech was delivered furiously and in deep isiXhosa. The occasion was the ceremony marking an important rite of passage – the graduation ceremony at the end of ubukwetha or male initiation. It was a heart-rending speech in which the chief considered the tragic future that awaited the initiates.

The chief satirically confessed that the entire initiation had shamefully and falsely promised manhood to the youngsters, whose every step would be thwarted by white supremacy. “Among these young men are chiefs who will never rule… soldiers who will never fight… scholars who will never teach.”

The young Mandela did not approve of Chief Meligqili’s speech at the time. He was deeply disturbed by it. Yet it was probably the closest Mandela came to a road to Damascus experience. That speech was like a seed which, long dormant, “eventually began to grow”, he said.

As Mandela later observed, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

As a country, the closest we have come to giving effect to Mandela’s sentiment has been the listing of all 11 of our major languages as official languages in our constitution.

In effect, though, South Africa has one official language, or two – if one includes Afrikaans. That one language is English. It is testimony to the dominance of English that I am here presenting my arguments against English in English.

The 11-languages ideal is not working even regionally.

In all spheres of government and in basic as well as in higher education, English has been made to look like it has neither equal nor rival. Since 1994, English has been encroaching into more and more spheres of South African society.

More and more families communicate in English, allegedly “for the sake of the children who cannot understand other languages and for their future, which requires them to learn only English”.

That is the well-rehearsed excuse that parents mouth monotonously to mask their sense of inadequacy in the absence of English.

Slowly but surely, English is occupying all formal and informal conversations, even between people who share and speak a language other than English.

Every linguistic vacuum is quickly filled with English. Where English has not yet fully occupied space, English-dominated code-switching is the order of the day. It has become the mark of class and culture. All indications are that English is our present and future – unless Mandarin, which is coming soon to a primary school near you, will have something to say about it!

Why has English become so greedy and so insatiable? What more will English take from us?

Thirty years from now, it is possible that while all youth and young adults will speak and write English and Mandarin fluently, the number who speak the other 10 official languages will be greatly reduced. In time, some of the latter will become extinct.

For some social Darwinists, this process will be the outcome of “natural selection” and the “survival of the fittest” languages – nobody’s fault.

Sooner or later the “weak” and “small” languages must fall and be relegated to museums while the strong and useful languages will stand tall, they argue.

Survival of the fittest, my foot!

Erroneously, some will even think that this will be progress. Finally, we will be rid of allegedly divisive and imprecise tribal languages, right? We will be able to rid ourselves of tribalism, they think. How? Like washing powder, English will wash away all the stains of imprecision, tribalism and ethnocentrism, right?

We forget that the English were themselves only a tribe among others, whose tribalism conquered and continues to dominate the world. It is perfectly possible to be a tribalist in English. There are other more plausible, but transparently faulty arguments in favour of English.

One such is the argument of internationalisation – that is, English is allegedly more international than Tshivenda, it is argued. We may need English to do business with Americans, but we do not need to conduct our debriefing of each business deal in English.

We may need English to study at a university in England, but we do not need English to communicate with swikwembu (ancestors) at our family shrine. The idea that we must rid ourselves of our languages and cultures to be international is a spurious one.

Were the other 10 official languages to die, one by one, and be replaced by English, it would be a monumental tragedy. South Africa would be poorer for it, and so would the world. Yet the direction and pace of this process will lead us towards a linguistic graveyard.

Since 1994, several indigenous language departments have been euthanised. The favourite argument has been financial. It may be true that we lack money for all 11 languages. I think our greater problem is one of a lack of will and of pretence – pretending that we have 11 official languages when everybody knows we have only one.

Admittedly, the speakers of the other 10 languages should be resisting their elimination, teaching their children and using these languages wherever and whenever English is not compulsory.

Scholars such as the late Neville Alexander and Ngugi wa Thiong’o warned that, whether we are talking about democratic culture, development or economics, we are neglecting our indigenous languages at our peril. Authoritative research reports, across the world, have shown the importance of mother-tongue learning.

I have some sympathy for those who speak only English. But neglecting the other 10 languages adds no value to the linguistic experience of such people. South Africa has a constitutional obligation, not only to give material effect to the 11 official languages, but to inculcate in the citizenry a will and a desire to learn more, not fewer, languages.

I am amazed at the unwillingness, in particular of many white compatriots, to learn indigenous languages, other than Afrikaans.

English alone is not sufficient for the attainment of social cohesion and the realisation of the rainbow nation. We are slowly destroying linguistic libraries built over centuries by our ancestors. For the world to respect us, we must meet the world as ourselves and at our best.

Let us not be fooled by hollow notions of internationalisation and pseudo-academic suggestions of English as a language of science.

The corollary is often that indigenous languages are not yet developed enough to be mediums of instruction at universities. Why do we not use them for what we think they are ready for, then? Wouldn’t contact professionals benefit if they learnt an extra indigenous language, for example? It makes practical and business sense.

I wish to see the next State of the Nation Address being delivered in isiZulu – technology and capacity exists for the speech to be translated and interpreted simultaneously.

I am tired of hearing my name and surname being linguistically murdered by compatriots, friends and colleagues – black and white – who show no desire to learn how to say my name correctly, let alone learn my language. Yet I have observed the same colleagues take the greatest care to learn the correct spelling and pronunciation of French and German names.

Each time I am called Tinyoka (snake) instead of Tinyiko (gifts), which is often, I cringe at the insensitivity and wilful ignorance of my beloved countrymen and women.

* Tinyiko Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity. He can be followed on Twitter @ProfTinyiko

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

Use our Facebook and Twitter pages to comment on our stories. See links below.