In his classic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian revolutionary philosopher Paulo Freire warns against what he calls “cultural invasion”. Cultural invasion, according to Freire, is – an instrument used by “invaders (to) penetrate the cultural context of another group, in disrespect of the latter’s potentialities; they impose their own view of the world upon those they invade”.
Cultural invaders are not as overtly brute as the Americans when they invade countries, à la Iraq.
They deploy all manner of subtleties to solicit the voluntary co-operation of the invaded group.
The ultimate object is to weaken the rootedness of the invaded people in their own culture, and thus to make them “wilfully” proud of the new culture of the invaders.
This cannot be achieved by brute force; it is attainable through persuasion and, in most cases, through subterfuge.
The invaded people would be told of the greatness of embracing the new culture – of the invaders.
The African continent has for centuries been the playground of cultural invaders of all hues.
The underdevelopment of the continent has been used by invaders as a cultural instrument against the African people.
To this day, there are millions of Africans who derive joy from the fact that their command of the French language is as pure as that of Parisians.
Even in our own country there are many who feel proud that their tongues are well-trained to cope with English elisions. This makes them forget that English is not a neutral language – it is pregnant with English culture.
Cultural invaders are alive to the potency of language in transmitting cultural values to the invaded people.
We must therefore be careful never to fall victim to language schemes designed ostensibly to empower us.
Our weariness must not only be in relation to European languages; it must be about languages in general, for even among Africans, languages can be used to invade the cultural spaces of other Africans.
In Zimbabwe, for example, there is a feeling among minorities that Shona is a language of privilege. Linguistically, the Ndebele people feel like low-grade citizens.
In Ethiopia, Amharic was shoved down the throats of all the people of that country as the official language of the government – even as Oromia province is the biggest, not Amhara.
The Ethiopian situation is particularly apposite; Amharic became the country’s official language simply because former prime minister Meles Zenawi came from Amhara province.
It is like declaring Zulu South Africa’s official language because Jacob Zuma comes from Nkandla, or because the Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande is a native Zulu.
Indeed, the deployment of language as an instrument of cultural invasion is widespread on the African continent.
It is not done by Europeans only. Africans, too, are guilty of the same crime.
This is why we must critically interrogate the new language policy of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) – benign as it may appear.
Early this month, UKZN found itself in the eye of a public storm, after announcing that, from next year, its first year students will be forced to take a course in Zulu, regardless of their degree. Cultural invasion, according to Freire, is choice.
This, we are told, is part of nation building. We are also told that, given that the university is located in KwaZulu-Natal, it makes sense for all its students to familiarise themselves with the language of the province.
The university also reasons that, given that 22.7 percent of South Africans are Zulu speakers, it makes sense for its students to be taught Zulu. Unpopular as it may be, no one must intimidate us from exposing the hollowness and dangers of these reasons.
Truth must never succumb to lies simply because lies are wearing an African jacket.
UKZN’s nation-building idea is bizarre. What makes the university believe nation building depends on the Zulu-isation of the country’s population? What has happened to “unity in diversity”?
The idea that a UKZN student from Venda will feel more South African by speaking Zulu is like asking the citizens of Lesotho to be proud that their nation was invaded by Shaka Zulu during the difaqane.
That university professors can think like this is not only shocking; it is an indictment on the leadership of UKZN.
Then there is the “location” argument. The logic is: if you chose to study in Kwazulu-Natal, you must learn Zulu. To an undiscerning mind, this may appear profound – warped as it is.
Imagine a student from Ghana, attracted to UKZN by the quality of the university’s medical science programme.
The Ghanaian youngster goes to UKZN with the intention of returning home upon completion of his medical studies. Why must this African student be prevented from acquiring his medical degree because he failed a compulsory course in Zulu?
What of a South African student from Mahikeng, who is attracted to UKZN by the quality of the university’s maritime studies? Must the Motswana student not receive his degree simply because he failed Zulu?
The assumption that students from KwaZulu-Natal will work in Zululand upon completion of their studies is to underestimate the national and global potential of youngsters from that part of our country. This is essentially a homeland mentality.
Let us hope that no other university will follow UKZN’s example. Otherwise, a student from the Eastern Cape going to study political science at North-West University would be forced to study Tswana.
If UKZN were to proceed with its Zulurisation project, students from outside KwaZulu-Natal would most likely stop considering this university as an option.
Thus the university would be reduced to a Zulu cultural academy, populated only by students from Nkandla, KwaDukuza, Msinga and such places. Such would be the day when UKZN ceases to be a university. It would at best resemble an IFP political school.
A university is supposed to be a cultural kaleidoscope, accommodating students from all over the world.
Students go to university not to learn a local language, but to gain knowledge from a range of academic disciplines. When they leave university, they don’t go to the world to teach a local language, but to shine in various areas of expertise.
Universities that wish to offer courses in African languages do so by introducing departments of Zulu, Tsonga, Xhosa.
This is not done to force all students to study these languages, but to ensure that students who wish to become language specialists are enabled to do so. Some would ask: Why are students forced to use English as a medium of instruction?
It is not because, upon completion of their studies, the students are expected to go and work in London.
It is because, as an international language of commerce, a student from Mtubatuba can be a globally acclaimed astronaut – by learning in English, not Zulu.
If professors of Zulu hope that Zulu will someday become an international language of commerce, they must first develop Zulu lexicography before they think that rocket science can be taught in Zulu.
Before this, no South African or international student must be forced to study Zulu at our universities.
Even if that were to happen, students would still deserve choice – not compulsion.
The most dangerous of UKZN’s linguistic experimentalism is the idea that, because 22.7 percent of South Africans speak Zulu, all students must study the language.
This is cultural invasion at its worst. The fact that a language is spoken by many does not make that language superior.
Imagine if all of us were to be forced to speak Mandarin simply because China has a population of 1.3 billion. Let the Chinese speak their own language, and let Xhosas speak theirs.
Few as they are, the Venda people of South Africa have the right not to speak Zulu, just as the University of Venda would be wrong to force its students to speak Venda.
This is the painful truth no cultural invader – whether they come from inside or outside South Africa – must be allowed to suppress.
Unfortunately, the debate sparked by the announcement of UKZN’s new language policy has not been honest. For some strange reason, South Africans fear the truth.
It is worst when the subject of debate concerns language issues; public discourse proceeds like a careful man walking on egg shells – treading gingerly.
It is the fear of truth that has, for centuries, rendered the African continent the playground of all manner of cultural invaders. This we must no longer allow – even when the invaders are African.
n Mashele is executive director of the Centre for Politics and Research, and a member of the Midrand Group.