Indigenous languages speak to cultural pride
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The POLITICAL, economic, and social impact of the imposition of colonial culture on Africans has been profoundly far-reaching. It started at the 1884/85 Berlin Conference where Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Portugal and Belgium met to divide Africa into territories to serve the interests of the colonial powers. The colonial administrators who arrived in Africa condemned and demonised African cultural practices. They were passionate about colonisation – they felt they had to bring development, civilisation and Christianity to the African people. And that was the beginning of the end for this continent.
Before the colonial era, through the strong oral tradition of our indigenous languages we proudly perpetuated our cultural practices, our history and our sense of the world. Our self-identity and character were intact. We had a strong sense of direction because our culture served as our reference point to the past and to the future.
But with the arrival of Europeans, African cultures were ruthlessly crushed.
It therefore came as a big relief when the ANC’s Mangaung conference in December came to the following resolution: “Teaching of an indigenous language is to be compulsory in all schools”. If this resolution is successfully implemented, it will go a long way to restoring our cultural heritage.
This progressive resolution is cause for great celebration because its successful implementation will ensure that our children’s re-engagement with indigenous languages will lead to the recovery of our culture. African culture is currently the missing link in our lives, in our education system and in our society. Language is the vehicle which carries culture from one generation to the next. And culture is expressed through language. So culture and language are intertwined – one cannot exist without the other.
According to our Bill of Rights we have eleven official languages. Nine of them are indigenous languages. The bill further states: “Recognising the historically diminished use of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.”
But despite these provisions, which date back to 1996, our country has not been successful in introducing indigenous languages in our schools. And the irony of this is that now the deepest disdain for indigenous languages does not come from our former colonial masters – but from black South Africans ourselves.
We are lucky that we only have 11 official languages in South Africa. Nigeria has 252, Cameroon 200, Kenya 42 and Gabon more than 40. It is, therefore, disturbing that since 1996, very few of us have managed to learn to communicate in at least five of our indigenous languages. The result of this has been the continual use of English at the expense of our own long-suppressed indigenous languages. It is clear that we are politically free, but culturally we are still in colonial chains.
Everywhere there are signs that we are happy cultural slaves in our own democratic country. It should be recalled that when Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi,was still Limpopo Education MEC he tried to implement the provisions of the Bill of Rights on indigenous languages. He wanted all schools in Limpopo to teach these languages. The result was vigorous protests by many black parents. They equated indigenous languages with mediocrity and argued that such a move would result in the lowering of academic standards. And convincing them otherwise was like trying to squeeze water from a rock.
I remember that, at the school where my son was enrolled, angry black parents charged at those who endorsed the decision and fortunately my sprinting talents as a former striker for Leolo United Brothers came in useful. Needless to say the move was scuppered by Africans themselves.
It was the great African academic, Dr Makula of Zambia who once advised: “The education of an African child should not be the mere assimilation of Western values and norms, but should to a greater extend, include the strengthening of their indigenous culture.” We have ignored his advice for too long and that is why even our children look down upon their own languages.
I witnessed this in 2000. The Education Department said it was redeploying certain teachers. Hearing this, one girl at a school in Polokwane said: “The first to go will be Mr Taola because he teaches Sepedi.”
As leaders, we have failed to affirm our indigenous languages. Very few of us can speak five sentences in our indigenous tongue without some English in the mix.Yet the same people can speak fluent English.
The importance of our indigenous languages and by extension our African cultural heritage should first be recognised and practised by us before others can do so. Even in this age where we see advances in science and technology, we should exude pride when we speak those languages. We are part of the beauty of the human race and it is up to us to find meaning in the diversity of our cultures.
When we fail to do this, we should know that we are creating a wall between the dead and the living and between the living and the unborn because the future of any society depends on how it passes the baton of its culture to the next generation.
l Abe Mokoena is a Polokwane-based commentator.