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Arts & Culture Trust of the President


Abner Nyamende

Department of Linguistics & Southern African Languages, UCT

This paper is intended to stimulate intense discussions on the issue of the indigenous languages by academics and researchers. Its point of departure is a language debate about the future of indigenous languages that took place in the 19th century. From there the paper illustrates the scenario at the present moment. I then look at the role of the Pan South African Language Board, laying more emphasis on the vision, objectives and functions of this body. Finally, I discuss the expectations about language in South Africa and how far these expectations could take us. My conclusion consists of tentative suggestions about what could possibly be done to ensure a place for the indigenous languages in South Africa.

As we enter the twenty first century, it is essential to ensure that we bring our languages along with us, the languages that have for many generations of dire social distress borne our culture: our customs, rituals, history, beliefs, etc. But more than this, we need to examine the pride (or absence thereof) with which we talk about these languages. In July 1891, Isaac Wauchope Citashe wrote an article titled “The Kafir Language”, an article that reflects much pride on the part of the writer about his very rich subject, his own language. His sense of pride is embodied in the one brief expression: “For my own part I would rather sacrifice a grand English style for a simple unextorted vernacular Kafir such as can only be attained by a careful study of the use of Kafir words or, in other words the study of Kafir composition and grammar” (Wauchope, 1891:3).

The above statement by Wauchope or Citashe (or Dyoba) is put in good English, by someone who has no problem expressing himself in English as well as Dutch, in fact, a fine student of Lovedale, Wauchope was one of the first black missionaries who had taken his mission to present day Malawi in 1876. As the language debate they had in 1891 demonstrates, these school people, the first black elite in South Africa to come from the first seminary schools — these people were at home in the use of English. It is in spite of such circumstances that Wauchope expresses his unreserved pride in his home language. Today many of the school people associate the indigenous languages with illiteracy, ignorance and backwardness, and are often ashamed of identifying themselves with these languages. I must admit, however, that I was greatly entertained by Mr M W Jadezweni’s letter to Cape Argus last week on Tuesday 3 July, in which he criticised the sentiment expressed by a journalist that “Xhosa people neglect their own language” (Cape Argus, 3 July 2001: 15). Jadezweni concludes his letter by declaring: “Such opportunism is immoral. I am very proud of my language isiXhosa.” Not much, however, comes from people who are not themselves language practitioners and teachers. It would benefit us to quote some more from Wauchope’s powerful article whose premise is: “Whether the study of Kafir Composition and Grammar should be made compulsory at Native Institutions?” He concedes:

    I used myself to think the Kafir language was very simple, and that it would be throwing precious time away to study it. In fact I even boasted of being a pretty good Kafir speaker, but when it came to consecutive thinking and close arguing I found out my mistake, and applied myself to the study of my own language, comparing it with the other languages I had to study. How far I have been successful others can judge best, but I still feel that I do not know my own language yet.
                (Wauchope, 1891:3)

What was the scenario in Wauchope’s time? The missionaries had brought the western school to the indigenous people. Being converted to Christian beliefs was the fashionable thing to do among the black people, and people like Wauchope himself, born into Christianity by parents who were already Christians by 1852, were seen as models of the future generation. They spoke polished English and a few of them also Dutch, wore tailed coats and could eat with forks and knives. Being able to communicate only in indigenous languages was a sign of being unschooled, illiterate and backward. Requiring an interpreter was another strong signal for the existence of the latter shortcomings. I was amused when the Chairperson of the Western Cape Provincial Language Committee invited us, us being a group of language enthusiasts, to a meeting, brought with her an interpreter and insisted that we used Xhosa to communicate with her. The rebellious feeling that we all experienced was that here was someone who inferiorated us before our eyes, because we instinctively felt that using the services of an interpreter was diminishing and not for us school people. Little did we think that what was being served to us was exactly what we should have been fighting for. I believe the majority of South Africans, when asked if they find anything archaic with Wauchope’s statement quoted above, if it were applied in today’s socio-political situation in South Africa, would hardly find fault with it, the statement being: “I found out my mistake, and applied myself to the study of my own language, comparing it with the other languages I had to study.” The idea of my language vis--vis the other people’s languages in the same country is so much part of our culture of separate development that we can hardly recognise it in Wauchope’s comment. Similarly, we often fail to appreciate one of the most precious differences between our Constitution and those of the other countries, which is that our Constitution recognises multilingualism as a bench mark of being truly South African, whereas in other countries the otherness of languages belonging to different communities is emphasised.

Which brings us to the question, what is the scenario in South Africa at the present moment? It appears that things have grown worse than in Wauchope’s time. What used to be fashionable in his time is now a tradition, and so much part of our culture and personalities that we do not feel it when we see those South African languages we identify with our races as amaXhosa, amaZulu, etc, as “our languages”, “home languages”, “mother tongues”, while we perceive other languages around our so-called “mother tongues” as “the other languages”. For example, an isiXhosa speaker sees isiXhosa as his solitary home language, while he views Xitsonga as the other South African language. In June 2001 a clerk in a department store who was filling in a form for me asked me what was my home language? I said, “Madam, I am a South African and I have a heritage of languages. Some of what you call `home language’ I cannot even speak, but they are my mother tongues by right.” I was confident I had said the wisest thing in the Southern Hemisphere that day, but the cool lady responded quite unshaken: “Sir, what is your language of communication.” Then I realised my tragedy: I can talk with pride about my heritage, but I am still compelled to address her in English if I need her services, just as I am doing to you now. I shall come back to the issue of my language vis--vis other people’s languages and give a more detailed explanation of what I mean.

I have been studying the various publications of the Pan South African Language Board with the aim of extracting the vision of our government and our people about all the languages of this country, and particularly about the indigenous languages. Here I now set forth to align this vision with what I think would be the ideal situation in the area of South African languages in the 21st century. Our Constitution is acclaimed one of the best constitutions in the world today, and it is unequivocal about the role of languages in the transformation of our society. PANSALB in its document, PANSALB’s position on the promotion of multilingualism in South Africa: a draft discussion document states:

    South Africa is in a particularly unusual position in that it has more official languages at a national level than any other country. The Constitution obliges government to effect this official status and use and the Board to promote respect for other languages as well as to promote multilingualism and the development of languages in general. This obligation places South Africa at the cutting edge of international language policy development, which presents an exciting opportunity for breaking new ground internationally.
                        (PANSALB, 1998:7)

Section 6 of the Constitution is wholly devoted to the languages of this country and Sub-Section (2) stipulates: “Recognising the historically diminished use and status of indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.” It appears, therefore, that there is a definite desire on the part of the people of South Africa to place the indigenous languages at the centre of the process of change and growth. There is a definite vision, and the vision seems to be quite unpretentious. All that is left is to create space for a foundation to be set and for a process of growth to begin. I regard as the most central premise for any language expert and language user Section 30 of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution, which reads as follows:

    Everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice 

This brings us to the issue of mother tongue and other tongue. The above Section places all the languages and cultures of this country firmly in our lap, so that where we used to have only our community’s language and culture to identify with, we now find ourselves with an inheritance of many languages and cultures, an inheritance so large that we find it hard to perceive it. I truly admire the insight that the first members of PANSALB have demonstrated, which has materialised in the form of the operational structures they have created. Here I am particularly impressed by the openness with which PANSALB has approached the delicate issue of a multilingual inheritance. PANSALB has given much publicity to its vision and mission statement, but I would like to quote them at this stage, so that we are clear about the aspirations of this Board where the future of languages is concerned. The PANSALB vision is: “To provide for the recognition, implementation and furtherance of multilingualism in the Republic of South Africa through the development of previously marginalised languages” ( The Board’s Mission Statement says:

    “The purpose of the Pan South African Language Board is to promote multilingualism in South Africa by:

  • creating the conditions for the development of and the equal use of all official languages;

  • fostering respect for and encouraging the use of other languages in the country and

  • encouraging the best use of the country’s linguistic resources

    in order to enable South Africans to free themselves from all forms of linguistic discrimination, domination and division and to enable them to exercise appropriate linguistic choices for their own well being as well as for national development.

The good thing about this vision and mission statement is that PANSALB has created a conceptual field around the issue of multilingualism to aid all involved to have a clear understanding of this term and its implications. In their document on multilingualism they quote Ingrid Gogolin (1993) who,

    Refers to the monolingual habitus in which the general, Western perception about language resides. The political, economic and military success of the West has resulted in a superimposing of the monolingual habitus upon the multilingual countries it subjugated. The multilingual reality which PANSALB is tasked with addressing needs to be understood against the overwhelming drive toward the monolingual habitus, and the dynamics of linguicism.
                        (PANSALB, 1998:7)

PANSALB observes that South Africa, “like most countries, is multilingual, which means that many languages are used in the country in various contexts and for various purposes. Most people are able to use more than one language; many people are able to use several languages” (PANSALB, 1998:7). It appears that the Chief Executive Officer of the Language Board, Professor C N Marivate, clearly perceives the enormity of the responsibility laid in the hands of PANSALB when she says,

    The recognition, implementation, and furtherance of multilingualism: that is what we hope to achieve. That is what we envisage we will have done when we say we have reached the ideal. Recognition of multilingualism, implementation of multilingualism, furtherance of multilingualism. An ideal. Will it ever be achieved? Yes, I think it will. When what was outlined in our mission has been carried out properly and effectively, we will have realised our vision.
                        (PANSALB, 2001:51)

This desire by Professor Marivate for an ideal of multilingualism generates another ideal, namely, the ideal South African of the future, black or white. One has the picture of an individual that can use many of our languages as a natural activity, moving from one language to another as the situation dictates without suffering any strain or exhibiting melodrama. That should be the ideal South African of the 21st century. But then what should be done in order to reach this ideal?

First of all, it is important to note that while there is already a small percentage of people that speak these South African languages comfortably as their first languages, the majority of our generation cannot achieve such success. All we should do is to lay down the foundations towards the realisation of such a goal in the lives of the coming generations. We must accept that we are a diseased generation, that the impediments of the apartheid culture which nurtured us in the tender years of our lives will always be with us in everything we do, and if we are not vigilant enough will crop up at odd moments, damaging or even ruining our delicate process of reconstruction. Then we must be constantly aware of our own shortcomings. Here is the irony of a society with flawed personalities, trying to construct a perfect future for themselves and their languages.

There are three aspects I would like to highlight as the central factors in ensuring a successful language plan towards multilingualism in South Africa in the 21st century. And these are language ownership, language diffusion, and language empowerment. The first aspect, language ownership, represents what we all need to learn and come to terms with. As I have already said, Section 30 of our Constitution puts an inheritance of all our languages in our laps. What is now left is that we demonstrate that we are worthy of such a heritage. What I am saying is that there should be a process whereby we come to terms with our inheritance, acknowledging its value and significance. The tendency, borne of our discriminatory judgement, is to reject our inheritance, picking out only the portion of it that we are used to. How many of us claim: “These languages are all of them my personal inheritance” and yet inwardly they resist accepting those languages they cannot speak as indeed part of their lives, adhering, instead, to the former apartheid stereotypes as the only thing meaningful to them in this scenario? We need a programme to educate us about what it means to say, “Everyone has the right to use the language  of their choice.”

In order to effect education on language ownership we need a user-friendly support structure. What we have at hand is PANSALB’s organogram, with the Provincial Language Committees tasked with the function of advising the Board on language matters. Then there are the National Language Boards that represent the various languages of the country. All is well — we have a sound framework to support the process of change and development of the indigenous languages. But the question of ownership is still not fully addressed. At a workshop in 1999 Advocate Christa Roodt explained to the Provincial Language Committees that, “PLCs consist of representatives of the South African languages used in the province proportionate to the language composition of the province as far as is practically possible.” (Italics mine.) For practical reasons this is quite good. All such a structure lacks is a permanent base that can be set, to help us to start turning the wheels towards the ultimate goal of multilingualism in the coming generations in South Africa, and we understand that this is the goal PANSALB has set itself.

Perhaps inadvertently, in the PANSALB structure we see the vestiges of a deformed personality exhibited by this body. As they are, the PLCs are virtually nothing but a reminder of the past where if it is in the Eastern Cape the PLC only has Xhosa speaking, English speaking and Afrikaans speaking members representing the old apartheid compartments. Instead, English and Afrikaans permeate the whole country and are represented in all the PLCs, while the other languages are represented only in one, two or three provinces. The emphasis now falls on an isiXhosa speaker representing isiXhosa in a PLC area of influence where the majority of speakers are amaXhosa. How different is that from having an isiXhosa speaking territory, a Tshivenda speaking territory, a Xitsonga speaking territory as in the past.

For me the ideal situation would be for a PLC to have eleven members representing the eleven official languages as the basic number of members. Then the number can be increased according to the dominance of certain languages in a province combined with representation from relevant areas of influence of the community. A structure like this would ensure that each province finds itself in possession of at least the official languages of the country. In that way Section 30 would have been addressed, and a firm base would have been set for the growth of all the indigenous languages on an equal basis. How a PLC addresses languages that did not traditionally belong to that region would be left to it and to that individual who is responsible for the language. One would find that some PLCs would import representatives of the languages they did not traditionally have from the areas of concentration of those languages. A PLC could also choose to leave language portfolios vacant if they feel that their province does not wish to exercise its ownership of that language.

Which brings me to the second aspect to ensure multilingualism in the future of the languages of this country. This is the aspect of language diffusion. Presently, the indigenous languages are concentrated in certain areas of their traditional existence and only English and Afrikaans are everywhere. How do we make the languages, which we all own equally, available to all of us so that we can use as we wish? If a white South African in Cape Town wishes his or her children to use Xitsonga, Tshivenda and Sesotho in addition to English and perhaps French will that person have facilities at hand to ensure that that happens? The first requirement would be for these languages to be available in some of the schools in the various communities. It would not cost the Department of education to have a sprinkling of teachers from areas of concentration of certain languages teaching those languages in the various schools and communities. Soweto stands as the best example of this, where different schools may offer different indigenous languages. This is, therefore, something that is quite practical. Speakers of the various languages can be identified, e.g. Tshivenda speakers in Umtata, a predominantly isiXhosa speaking community, and language development programmes in which they are involved may be designed.

Regrettably, PANSALB does not seem to have considered language diffusion, a process that would aid accessibility of all our languages to us in fulfilment of the ownership principle.

The third aspect is language empowerment. Who is going to waste time on a language that has no economic power? The traditional speakers of these languages have no money to plough into the development of the indigenous languages in the form of bursaries, research grants and commissioned publications. Our students ask us what they will do with these languages if they major in them. All we can do is mumble something about translation and interpreting. Publishing is still in the hands of people who, too, need to be educated on the meaning of multilingualism. How do we place these languages where there is economic power, so that they can be fully empowered like the English language? Some of us are watching the Department of Education closely to see if they will finally gather enough courage to implement the desire to teach in all the official languages of the country.

We will continue to learn to speak English, French and Portuguese because they are international languages. But, let us face it, the majority of us only wish to live a good life here at home before we can think about international matters. We do not all want to trade overseas. There will always be those who do — they exist in all countries, even in the monolingual countries. But the majority will always want to live and work at home. There is no reason at this time and age for me to learn English first if I can be trained through the medium of isiXhosa to be a radio technician.

The language policy for higher education, which is already in the process of being created should bring multilingualism to tertiary education. But that is the subject for another paper. We are aware that at South African universities the indigenous languages are clubbed together under one department, while English and Afrikaans continue to enjoy the status of being free-standing departments. Afrikaans at the University of Cape Town, is, however, a unique exception, because it belongs together with the other indigenous languages in one department.

We must design a structure that is rooted in industry and business. Furthermore, our structures for implementing multilingualism must be rooted in all the communities of this country. PANSALB with its sub-structures, the PLCs, NLBs and NLUs is to me just a surface structure that can barely have a direct influence on the individual in a community. What will happen is that the members involved in these structures will decide for ordinary South Africans. But in reality the person who possesses the language is the individual South African and not an expert or committee member. It would, therefore, be imperative to have a structure whose roots are in industry, in the business world, as well as in the communities, something like grassroots language committees in established organisations, business, on the factory floor, churches, any organisation. Some organisations like business with less than ten employees could have just a language person. These could be serviced by the PLCs through the process involving workshops, talkshops, reports, etc. In that way everyone in South Africa would feel the process of language transformation in the immediate environment. Surely, something can be done to stimulate industry and the business world into having their own language committees or people. And we should make sure that business and the industrial world are involved, because that is where economic power lies.

I collected legislation from the various provinces in the country to help me determine whether a concerted effort to effect genuine social transformation exists in this country. I found that for most provinces the process of formulating legal guidelines and strategies is still under way. But I think that the focus that we have been given by PANSALB is sufficient to get us to lay down the groundwork. While we accept that its “explicit role is to create the conditions for the development of and equal use of all official languages” (PANSALB, 1998:3), we should go beyond this and cater for all our languages.

In conclusion, the indigenous languages will play a central role in the 21st century, on one condition and that is now that we have a focus, we should lay down a proper foundation. How can that happen if the universities that are the centres of learning and research are now closing down the departments of African languages? I was looking at the cases that PANSALB has handled (Annual Report, 2000) regarding violations of the language rights, and I found one complaint about the discontinuation of Afrikaans at the University of Venda and another against the discontinuation of Indian languages at the University of Durban-Westville. I could not find any complaint against any threat or decision to reduce or close down an indigenous language department, a decision that I regard as an insult to the people of South Africa (PANSALB Annual Report, 2000:55).

In 1891 Wauchope suggested the following:

    All I mean at present is that no certificates — Government or University — should be granted to those Native students who shall not have passed in Kafir Grammar and Composition. This, in fact is the pivot round which the whole question revolves; because the range of subjects taught in our Institutions is virtually determined by conditions laid down by Government, either for issuing grants or granting passes, and these conditions have been fixed with due consideration for the wants of those for whose benefit the schools exist.
                        (Imvo, October, 1891)

Bringing Wauchope’s argument to our times I would strongly suggest that matters like subsidies for universities should include the issue of how these universities are promoting the indigenous languages. In that way we could ensure that the future of the indigenous languages in the 21st century is indeed in our hands.


Cape Argus, 3 July 2001.
Imvo, 12 November 1891.
Imvo, 17 July 1891.
Imvo, 19 November 1891.
Imvo, 31 December 1891.
Imvo, 9 October 1891.
Language Policy Framework for Higher Education in South Africa, 2001.
PANSALB Annual Report, June 2000.
PANSALB in PANSALB’s position on the promotion of multilingualism in South Africa: a draft document, 1998.
Record of the Provincial Language Committees Workshop, 2001.
The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.


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