Rawe Kakuwu might be the school cleaner at Xhunkhwesa Combined School in Platfontein just outside Kimberley, but he is also one of only a handful of people in South Africa who can speak, read and write the indigenous languages - !Xunthali and Khwedam.
Khwedam is spoken by the Khwe people while !Xunthali is the language of the !Xun people.
Kakawu matriculated in 1997 and moved from Schmidtsdrift to Platfontein in 2003 where he lives with his wife and three children.
His biggest fear is that his mother tongue, Khwedam, will die out - and believes that little is being done to prevent this.
“Most of the children in Platfontein mix both these languages with Afrikaans. They speak !Xunthali or Khwedam at home but then, when they get to school, they are taught in Afrikaans. One can hear that they speak more Afrikaans than their own indigenous languages as they always revert to Afrikaans,” said Kakawu.
Kakawu’s literacy skills improved after he took lessons from a visitor from Botswana to the area.
“Dawid Naude used to come visit Platfontein and he taught me how to read and write both !Xunthali and Khwedam languages. I completed up to level three and even received a certificate which allows me to teach children up to Grade 3 to read and write the two languages.”
Kakawu, who has been a cleaner at the school for the past 14 years, said he had tried to pass on his knowledge to the children in the area.
“I would like to see our children write and read Khwedam as it is part of their culture. Language has a great impact on our culture as well. The children are not even aware that there are different ways in which they are supposed to greet their elders,” said Kakawu.
He said many parents in the area were unhappy that their children were not being taught in the their mother tongue at school.
“The parents at home can speak the !Xunthali or Khwedam but they cannot write it. They have a desire that their children should at least be able to this but now they are not being taught in their own language. Our children are growing up not knowing their mother tongue.
“The language will as a result die out in a couple of generations and Khwedam and !Xunthali will follow the same route as the language of the Griqua people,” he added.
The Pan South African Language Board in the Northern Cape shared Kakawu’s concerns.
The Provincial Manager of PanSALB, Boichoko Moremi said the Northern Cape Department of Education had failed the San people in the Province.
“PanSALB has tried so many times to engage the MEC of Education, Grizelda Cjekella-Lecholo on this matter and she has, at all times, been illusive. The Northern Cape was the only province that taught the Khoi and San languages but somebody decided to end this.”
Moremi said they had been trying to reinstate the teaching of these languages in schools.
“We have been talking to various officials in the education department, who have had different opinions on the matter. No-one seems to see the necessity for the San people to be taught in their own language.
“Most do not realise that Khoi and San languages fall into the same category as Indigenous African Languages and it is crucial that we preserve these languages,” he said.
Moremi added that the department had given many excuses why the language could not be taught in the schools.
“The department has indicated that there are no qualified teachers to teach the language at schools, which is just a way of dodging the truth. The language was taught in schools until it was stopped in 2011. Those teachers who taught these languages to learners are now sitting idle at home because the department put a stop to their income,” said Moremi.
The Head of Communications in the provincial Department of Education, Lehuma Ntuane, said the decision on what medium learners should be taught in lies with the School Governing Body and parents.
“The matter of language in schools is a School Governing Body matter. Parents are involved in choosing what language of instruction they want their children to be taught in. The department has very little to do with that decision. At the school in Platfontein the preferred medium of instruction has been Afrikaans,” said Ntuane.
The Northern Cape MEC for Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Norman Shushu stated during a Language Indaba hosted by PanSALB Northern Cape in 2013 that South African languages have been under attack since the dawn of democracy.
“During the Apartheid era most of us attended schools in the townships but after 1994 we started receiving our education in town and we also speak English in our homes. Hence most of our children cannot read and write in their mother-tongue,” Shushu said at the time.
He pointed out that it was vital for government in the Province to reverse the harm done to indigenous African languages.