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Sound Bites For A Derailed Democracy

Protest language revisited

Jameson Maluleke

Abstract

Amongst South Africa's low functional languages, protest language is by far the most disadvantaged and the least understood. Reasons are not far to fetch.

Our Constitution, the world's finest, which ensures that our freedom and liberties of speech are guaranteed, does not recognise protest language. Perhaps linguists should confess that they have been grossly negligent of protest language as part of multilingual South Africa. The government cannot declare every language official without language planners' and policy makers' wise counsel. Well, let us shelve this issue on our top shelf, as it is outside the angle of our focus.

Protest language boasts of cross-cultural qualities which encapsulate universal appeal. For instance, any woman who has the guts to say no to a rapist, a youth who screams aikona to child abuse, courageous men and women who can stand up against tyranny, all belong to the protest language speech community. In short, all of us who subscribe to sociopolitical justice, tolerance and the love for freedom have protest language as our mother tongue. Unfortunately, no anti-social being can ever be fluent in protest language.

Despite the fact that protest language is our lingua franca, it is sadly a neglected field of study with no research of its own, except in sociology, where it is referred to with reference to the civil rights movement. Exactly three years ago, I gave my input on protest language (Maluleke 2003) to help generate interest and to add to the body of knowledge in sociolinguistics. This, my second paper on the same topic, spells out my passion about the subject and emphasises the aforementioned reason.

If protest language is indeed a common language, why the recurring confusion? What can be done to disabuse people who confuse protest language with radical politics whose sole aim is to render the country ungovernable, and worse still, to frighten company owners and investors out of the country?

There are of course, many answers to the above question. But I am convinced that a streak of ism runs through all these confusions and misunderstandings associated with protest language. Let me, for our own sake, call this ism neoliberalism, a system which demonises protest language as a way to suppress it.

For Rossouw (Star, March 29, 2006:20) neoliberalsim is a hydralike system whose many long tentacles seek to head every aspect of the society according to the laws of the market: "Languages, religion, values, and so on, which are fundamental to who we are, are therefore not popular in the neo-liberal world-view."

I will devote the rest of my paper to an attempt to shed light on the plight of protest language as an instrument of change. I will argue that neoliberalism uses mass media and English to denigrate social values and minority languages like protest language into nothingness.


Introduction

In South Africa, as in many countries around the world, the adult population relies mainly on the media for its education. By education I refer to information and knowledge about language and social issues people derive from the media, though heavily tainted by propaganda. Feddler (1978:7-8) sees the media as constituting the most powerful education system known to man: "Persons who have completed their formal educations have no other regular source of information about the world."

This kind of education is not without its own problems. The fact that media education is a self-taught, passive, unsupervised exercise outside the classroom / seminar room tends to create a great deal of pandemonium in people's minds. For instance, the public is bombarded with mass information at any given time of the day. People swallow chunks of information without taking trouble to analyse their authenticity or reliability.

Research has shown that people seldom allow themselves an opportunity to assess the way in which they interpret information. Rossouw (ibid) points out that those institutions that neoliberalsim can't kill off must be transformed to serve its interest. The massive communications industry is used to market its message. "Neo-liberalism glorifies market, it prefers quantity over quality, since quality is less easy to count."

As can be seen, education derived from the mass media is not there to enlighten but to mislead people, since it comes in large quantity rather than in quality, and is propagandistic in its nature.

I am sure that each one of us is aware that the country was gripped by a wave of protest and demonstrations by the grassroots people before and after the local government elections which took place early this year. People in Harrismith in the Free State, Khutsong in the North West, and Delmas in Limpopo protested to show their discontent with municipal incompetencies and municipal dermacations. (For your information, Khutsong is still burning as I am speaking to you. Protesters were and still are gatvol - up to their eyeballs - as the local government failed to deliver basic services.)

Those who are courageous to tread on the minefield called politics keep on asking why protesting Africans continue to vote for a party that is characterised by incompetencies and corruption. Why dissatisfied Africans can't open their eyes and vote for, say, the official opposition, which is no doubt capable of delivering the goods.

Be that as it may, people have rights to freedom of speech in a democracy such as ours, but let us also admit that speaking without rational responsibility is an abuse of the freedom of speech and human rights. But the mental irresponsibility of those taken aback by African voters' "ignorance" points back to the confusion spread by neoliberalism. The issue here is, therefore, not whether to vote for or against a party. Protest language revolves around change rather than participation in party politics.

Some scholars are of the opinion that protest language supplements or complements elections. Basing her argument on a survey done by AC Nielsen, Booysen (Star, February 6, 2006:10) holds that a second signifier of the changing order of local democracy was the proliferation of protest: "We now know that protest is likely to supplement rather than replace voting. It is used as a complementary mechanism to activate councillors and municipalities."

The truth is that the 2006 local government elections were characterised by voter apathy. The majority of people in volatile places like Khutsong did not turn up to cast their votes as they felt the government still finds it difficult to attend to their grievances.

Protest language is not a strategy or mechanism to supplement or complement elections. It originates from discontent in any powerless section of a society. When a person does not have shelter or electricity, when a person goes hungry or thirsty, such a person is discontented and will be forced to stand up and voice his or her unhappiness. When the government refuses to carry the people's mandate, the downtrodden masses are overwhelmed by a protesting spirit.

So what the protesters did at various towns around the country was to use protest as a language or medium to call on the government to assess and change its policies concerning civil matters affecting them as citizens of the country. When Steve Biko sacrificed his life in jail for the greater good of our society, when Mandela and his companions-in-arms left their families to spend decades on Robben Island, they were voicing their abhorrence of apartheid rather than supplementing apartheid elections.

Perhaps the issue of sacrifice is explicitly elucidated by Hani (2004:92) in the following lines: "What right do I have to hold back, to rest, to preserve my health, to have time with my family, when there are other people who are no longer alive - when they have sacrificed what is precious, namely life itself?"

It must be recalled that Hani, who was Africa's fearless revolutionary, also sacrificed his life for our freedom, liberty and independence. .

To answer the question what can be done to disabuse people who confuse protest language with radical politics, logically one can simply say, eradicate neoliberalism. But it is not as simple as enjoying a dish of pap en melk, in that neoliberalism controls every terrain of the society. As such, people need an integrated effort to do away with this oppressive system. The first step would be to insist on proper education in all schools by well-qualified teachers that will open people's eyes to identify the enemy (neoliberalism) within.

Protest Language

Protest language is not spoken, as its vocabulary is made up of actions, slogans, signs, song and dance. Yet it is like any other language, a medium, a system of signs (Pierce 1958) - a social behaviour or action (see Labov 1983.) Articulated by the klipgooiers, the arsonists and toyi-toyi dancers, protest language is characterised by spontaneity, and like the tsunami wave, is unstoppable. For instance the Russian Revolution of 1899 was sparked by the spontaneous, large-scale student protest at the Imperial St Petersburg University when the government refused for them to celebrate the day on which the university was founded. (Pipes 1990:6-7). The students' protest march grew into a revolution whose repercussions were felt in every corner of the globe for the rest of the last century.

Similarly, the 1976 Soweto uprisings were sparked by students' grievances against Bantu Education. It became a revolution only when the government turned a deaf ear - refusing to listen to the protesters. Many of our parents who are still alive today are baffled as to how we school children of the late 70s were able to look the beast in the eye, as Tutu (2004:50) puts it, and went on to usher in the age of freedom in our motherland.

Protest language is composed of sound bites which keep the government on its toes and forces it to do what it is mandated to do - to serve the people. Before you dismiss me as a romantic idealist, let me hasten to add that protest language may indeed be the seed of insurrection, but if planted properly it germinates and grows into a fertile field of nation-building, prosperity and unity in diversity.

Conclusion

The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), individual linguists, language practitioners and language teachers have a duty to see to it that protest language becomes part of our linguistic heritage. One of the ways of preserving this language is to convince the Department of Education to include protest language in the national syllabus so that it may be taught in schools, colleges and universities. The inclusion of protest language in the national syllabus would help lessen confusion displayed by even those who profess to be scholars. No country can ever claim to be a democracy without protest language. Let me conclude my paper by saying that all of us who are ardent defenders and upholders of democratic principles should be more vocal in our call against maladministration and plunder of public funds. Let us not allow parasites and opportunists in government to derail our hard-won democracy as they continue to excel in serving the nation with fraud.


List of sources

Fedler, Fred. 1978. An Introduction to the Mass media. New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.
Hani, Chris in Great South Africans. 2004. Penguin Books (SA) Pty Ltd. Johannesburg. SABC (TV series).
Archbishop Mphilo Desmond Tutu in Great South Africans. 2004. Penguin Books (SA). Johannesburg. SABC (TV series).
Labov, W. 1985. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Maluleke, M.J. 2003. "Protest Language - whispers and monologues of revolution." Paper presented at the South African Association for Language Teaching (SAALT) Conference at the University of Johannesburg (formerly Rand Afrikaans University).
Pipes, R. 1990. The Russian Revolution 1899-1919. London: Collins Harvill.
Tutu, D. Great South Africans. 2004. Penguin Books (SA) Pty Ltd. Johannesburg. SABC (TV series).
Pierce, Charles Sanders. 1958. America's versatile philosopher who developed language as the system of signs.
Booysen, Suzan. Star, February 6,2006:10.
Rossouw, Johann. Star, 29, 2006:20.
Ibid. Star, 29, 2006:20.




LitNet: 16 May 2006

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