By Pinky Khoabane
There’s never a dull moment in our country – and this is putting it mildly given some of the tragic events which lay bare how far we are from being a nation – with shared values and goals – and the disrespect for the rights that are enshrined in our Constitution.
The issue of language and the right of all citizens of this country to choose their preferred language came under the spotlight yesterday when the spokesperson of the Department of Social Development, Lumka Oliphant refused to speak English in an interview with Xolani Gwala of Radio 702. She was dealing with the current crisis on social grants. Gwala ended the interview when Oliphant refused to speak in English.
In typical response of people obsessed by the language of colonialists, Oliphant was harangued. She was accused of being arrogant, stubborn and all sorts of other labels were piled upon her. The sad part was that it was mostly Africans on social media that were most offended by the spokesperson. One would have thought that the Africans – whose culture, traditions and languages had been eroded through colonisation and apartheid – would have been the happiest to see a fellow African assert themselves and their identity through their language.
Kenyan born, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, in his seminal essay, Decolonising the Mind, describes the extent to which English was revered: “In Kenya, English became more than a language: it was Slanguage, and all the
others had to bow before it in deference.
Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking
GikuyU in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal
punishment — three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks — or was
made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM
STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money they
could hardly afford”.
He continues: “And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button
was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever
was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end
of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process
would bring out all the culprits of the day. Thus children were turned into
witch-hunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of
being a traitor to one’s immediate community”.
Like the Kenyan children who had been taught to turn against their fellow pupils, the Africans were the most horrified by Oliphant’s choice of language. “How dare she on an English radio station,” they asked? “If she didn’t want to speak English she should have gone to one of the Black SABC stations”. Their rants continued the entire day and sadly deflected attention from the real issue of the social grants.
The problem with us – and here I mean Blacks and Africans in particular – continue to be obsessed with English and this is because part of inculcating the language was putting it up on a pedestal. And how the English achieved this is explained very well in Decolonising the mind.
“The attitude to English was the exact opposite: any achievement in
spoken or written English was highly rewarded; prizes, prestige, applause; the
ticket to higher realms. English became the measure of intelligence and
ability in the arts, the sciences* and all the other branches of learning. English
became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal
This phenomenon, tragically remains till today. The measure of advancement – school, workplace and many spheres of life depends on how good one’s English is and if you can speak it like the English or twang it like the Americans – all the better.
Oliphant was berated for speaking isiZulu on a supposedly English radio station but the driver who put a woman in a cage at the back of his bakkie spoke Afrikaans in an interview on the same Radio 702. There was absolutely no outcry on his choice of language. In fact Eusebius McKaiser, who conducted the interview interpreted and summarised what the man was saying. Not our African brother, Gwala. His mind is so colonised that he’s well aware of the “punishment” that comes with espousing his language. He knows it could be so costly as to lose him his cushy job at the radio station. So what does he do? He not only shuns his language but creates an incident that seeks to ostracise the African who dares to speak to him in her language on an English radio station.
There is much for the African National Congress to learn from the Afrikaaners. They fought the English language and within the same time that we’ve had our democracy, they developed their language from a zero base to one which could be used anywhere and every level of academia.