Dr Hlengani Baloyi is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg.
Dr Hlengani Baloyi is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg.

Vatsonga-speakers fight for inclusion in SA narrative

By Dr Hlengani Baloyi Time of article published Jun 21, 2020

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Johannesburg - At the height of apartheid, the sight of a Mutsonga or Shangaan woman, resplendent in her traditional miceka and xibelana, walking in the streets of ethnically segregated urban South African townships often elicited ridicule and culture shaming from her fellow long-suffering black brothers and sisters with no sense of irony.

During those days any product viewed as ugly or of substandard quality was associated with Vatsonga-Machangana, hence terms such as machangana wors, machangana mealie meal, to name a few examples.

Dark-skinned South Africans always had to be Shangaans. Any exception to this unwritten rule would have to be thoroughly probed as there definitely must be a mistake.

A woman having trouble in calming her wailing infant would threaten it with calling a Shangaan to discipline it. And guess what, more often than not, the baby would instantly stop crying. Even babies knew Shangaans were ugly sub-humans.

Shangaan boys disowned their mothers out of shame and men dissuaded their wives from wearing their supposedly backward and demeaning traditional attire and forced them into purportedly more acceptable, decent Western dress. They were coerced to become something they were not.

Many things have changed since South Africa transitioned into a democracy in 1994. But have they?

Discussing issues related to the marginalisation of Vatsonga-Machangana has many pitfalls, as one runs the risk of being accused of promoting tribalism à la apartheid style at the expense of building the unity of all South Africans that liberation movements fought so hard for. But nothing could be further from the truth. 

Raising these issues is a legitimate exercise to seek redress for gross constitutional, cultural, linguistic and human rights injustices perpetrated, by omission or commission, against a people for a long time.

In the 26 years since the advent of democracy, the government has treated Vatsonga-Machangana with disdain and disrespect. 

The Constitution recognises Xitsonga as one of the 11 official languages. Section 6 (5) also obligates the Pan South African Language Board (Pansalb) to promote and create conditions for the development and use of all languages. Established in 1995, Pansalb, a public entity, has done nothing tangible to advance and support Xitsonga as an official language in the 25 years of the organisation’s existence.

At the centre of gross marginalisation is the SABC which, as the public broadcaster, should be at the forefront of equitable promotion of all languages in its purview. 

Save on an hour’s news bulletin a couple of times a week, the presence of Xitsonga on our TV screens is zilch.

It should be an indictment, instead of being a positive appraisal, on the public broadcaster that it managed after 25 years of democracy to air a Xitsonga-based drama series on SABC2.

That some of the main actors in the soapie, curiously titled Giyani: The Land of Blood (Giyani is a town in Limpopo, not a country), were not traditional Xitsonga speakers did not matter much to many viewers.

That is why the abrupt discontinuation of the soapie was met with dismay and disappointment by many Vatsonga TV viewers. What justification did the SABC have to can this series, its poor production quality notwithstanding, while it persists to air old shows like S’gudi S’nayisi?

To further demonstrate the government’s attitude towards Vatsonga is its lack of interest in facilitating the anointment of their king or to recognise that they, like amaZulu, amaXhosa, abaThembu, Bapedi and Vhavhenda, deserve a king or queen of their own.

According to Statistics SA, there were more than 2.2 million Xitsonga speakers at the last census in 2011, compared with 1.2 million Tshivenda speakers and just over 3.8 million Sesotho speakers.

Sesotho speakers represent 7.6% of the population, Xitsonga don’t lag too far behind at 4.5%. It is unjustifiable for Vatsonga to be treated with such disdain in the country of their birth.

In the face of the continued and deliberate undermining of and discrimination against Vatsonga-speaking people, moves are afoot to establish a formal apolitical movement to champion their fight for their inclusion in the South African narrative.

* Dr Hlengani Baloyi is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg. He writes in his capacity as interim co-ordinator of the Timfanelo ta Vatsonga initiative.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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