It is disheartening that in this age we still have to contend with headlines such as the one I saw on a local women’s interest magazine as I stood in a supermarket queue just recently. It read, “Dr Rebecca Malope opens up about learning to speak English at 21”. On the same day, Times Live also ran an article on how President Jacob Zuma embarrassed himself and the country by failing to be thoroughly “articulate” in English.
Funny enough, it was during this period last year that Number One was ridiculed for not being able to read out a very big number. I may not be his biggest proponent, but I am beginning to wonder whether nobody else sees anything amiss with these incidents; with the fact that it is becoming increasingly evident that being articulate in the queen’s language is rated very highly among South Africans.
Having entered the Shell Road to Music competition a virtual nobody, Malope’s victory plummeted her to the very top. So it’s not surprising that a lot of people, like yours truly, grew up idolising her. Her talent has never been disputed and therefore success and acclaim naturally followed. Being a media darling, however, has not spared her from being on the receiving end of patronising journalism.
Having transcended humble beginnings, Malope’s story is not different from Zuma’s. While we can admit the latter isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and that under his leadership, South Africa is critically in need of more concerted nation-building efforts, the disturbing trend in mainstream media resorting to character assassinations and low blows to sell stories is something that simply cannot be ignored.
September is Heritage Month in South Africa. We celebrate all things that make us proudly South African; from the authentic to the most superficial. We appear to celebrate everything from clothes to cuisine to lifestyle and language. We may not be anywhere close to the 521 languages that Nigeria boasts, but with 11 official languages, we aren’t doing too badly.
Yet, we remain a country of contradictions and our collective bond as strong as it is fickle. In particular is that nine of those languages, which are native to the majority of the population remain marginalized. There is no question on the benefits of children being able to learn in their primary language. Unfortunately, it is the position of disadvantage that most of the majority are in that continues to maintain the status quo that has seen organisations such as Freedom Front Plus and Solidarity fighting to keep Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at two universities.
The only thing possibly worse than this is the ongoing practice of the articulate ones being put on a pedestal and the entrenched mind-set among indigenous groups that those who aren’t measuring up ought to be ridiculed. Having not read the Rebecca Malope article, I can only make the assumption that her decision to school herself came from immense social pressure -whether perceived or real.
It is far easier to cite economics when faced with serious questions about how we treat our indigenous languages. We’ve let English and Afrikaans dictate the terms of reference to a point where we simply cannot imagine anything else. In the same breath, decisions are made to bring in Mandarin teachers into the country “because the world is moving in that direction” when we are challenged with children who can neither speak or write in their mother tongue nor in English for that matter.
But how ready are our African languages to play their part? Languages organically develop new words and ways with words as the need arises. This ongoing process is disrupted by a decision not to use a language for educational purposes, or to restrict its use to a few years in primary school.
As a country, we need to create an environment that is conducive to harnessing language use across the board; an environment that encourages each individual to excel in their mother tongue and not be apologetic. The use of local languages needs to shift from being a seasonal affair limited to wooing tourists. A white person speaking an indigenous language needs to become the norm rather than the exception in as much as an African needs to be able to communicate in English. We should be moving past the frivolous exercises that we undertake during periods like Heritage Month and focusing on real and sustainable solutions.