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The Mother City Book Festival

Abner Nyamende

lectures in the department of Linguistics and Southern African languages at the University of Cape Town, and is an accomplished published poet and fiction writer. His first book of Xhosa poetry, entitled IMBONGI IJONG'EXHANTINI (The Bard Turns Towards the Graves of the Ancestors), was published in July 1995. He also has done research on traditional Xhosa praise poetry and on Xhosa folktales. Nyamende has a special interest in promoting the development of creative writing in local indigenous languages, including Xhosa.

For those of us who are charged with the task of seeing at least the official indigenous languages of South Africa placed on the same level as English in this country, the Mother City Book Festival was a let-down. All the festival did was to demonstrate the dominance of English as if we were still in apartheid times. There was no attempt at redress at all, and I suspect that the organisers prepared the Festival without inviting help from the other language communities of the Western Cape. The majority of people in the Mother City speak Afrikaans, with isiXhosa coming second and English last. Any right-minded person who had a vision to prepare us all for a multilingual future in the Mother City would have seen to it that the programme represented an even distribution among these three languages. But this turned out to be an event for those who publish books in English. Ironically, at the end of the programme there is an item: "Is Afrikaans a dying language?" Indeed the programme mutilated Afrikaans and killed isiXhosa altogether.

The third item on the opening day is unashamedly "English Alive Launch", an attempt that disregards the existence of other languages. The item would have been suitable if the three official languages of the Western Cape had received equal distribution. But as it is, it exhibits a celebration of the English language as the sole language in this city. What kind of person can celebrate the dominance of the English language in the presence of poorly supported indigenous languages which are the languages of the majority in this country? Is this not a racist mindset in action?

Among the Xhosa communities in the townships there are brilliant storytellers and there are numerous stories to choose from. Not a single isiXhosa-speaking storyteller has been invited, and yet on 1 September there was an inspiring item, "Once Uponna Ö the Art and Craft of Storytelling with Dorian Haarhoff". Even this item was monopolised by English.

PRAESA, whose advocacy for home languages is well-known, was given a corner on Friday 2 September to screen a film "to motivate the educator". I dare say this was not much of a voice in the circumstances and it was easily swamped by the omnipresent English voice that dominated the Festival. Indeed one would think that this programme was made in old apartheid times, when liberals used to introduce just a touch of the activist vein to make their programme attractive and look "daring". Thus we have an item entitled "Multiculturalism in South Africa". The following is the rubric that accompanies this title: "Are all the South African cultures being explored? How is education embracing the issue of multiculturalism in education? Knowledgeable and practising in this field Dorothy Kowen and Diane Case will discuss what is being done and how we can exercise multiculturalism in SA effectively." This sounds so remote that one could have thought it was happening in America and we could see it happening in South Africa only in the distant future. Are these people going to talk about multiculturalism and not help us live it? And this multiculturalism is placed here to disguise the absence of multilingualism, which should have been dominant in this programme.

This should have been called the Festival for the English-speaking People of Cape Town. When people organise festivals like these they should make themselves aware of the dynamics of this country. The time for pushing one language when you have ten other languages that also belong to you is past. We need people who will work for the future of this country and who have a round vision of what they expect the South Africans of the future to be like. We want to listen to people who make us experience real change, and not disguised racists who are camouflaged under new names. If it is multilingualism, then all our programmes should reflect the same.

  • Click here to read the comments of participants of the Mother City Book Festival, as well as a comment from the organisers.
  • Click here for the Mother City Book Festival programme

    LitNet: 26 September 2005

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