Dashiki Dialogues: Zuma should act on mother tongue agenda

2012-07-21 11:28

I think President Jacob Zuma would do well to address the nation in isiZulu, his mother tongue, from here on out.

Think about it – he’s been ridiculed and criticised for all sorts of faults, and sometimes with good reason.

However, none have been as petty as complaints that the president’s English is unpolished and makes him unworthy of office.

Part of these complaints about Zuma’s English stems from a dark and embarrassing root, to be honest. It’s something we can loosely call anglocentrism or, worse still, self-hate.

How else can we explain that darkies will crucify you for taking liberties with English pronunciation and yet won’t even notice bad grammar in Sesotho or Tshivenda?

These are their own mother tongues that, by the way, are constitutionally recognised official languages.

I can’t help but read this as an issue of cultural valuation where the attainment of “better English” is seen as the acquisition of a higher cultural status, or some humanising quality. Of course, part of the problem lies in the colonialist sociocultural histories.

We come out of a past that continues to confer greater value and social power on white or European cultural expressions. The contest over the power of languages has also been brewing within academia.

Examination papers are still set in English with Afrikaans translations.

The obvious effect is that those with a stronger grasp of the language will have it easier. This is before the examined students’ knowledge of their subjects is

tested. So there’s no telling what normative effect this hegemony enjoyed by English will have on nonspeakers.

Our social values start to revolve around the dominant language, even if it’s foreign.

The president could go a long way towards empowering the mother tongue agenda. The truth is, after all, that Zulu is a much more popularly spoken language in South Africa than English.

If you add that isiZulu is also understandable to isiXhosa, SiSwati and isiNdebele speakers, we can determine that by him speaking to the nation in his mother tongue, the president will be making his ideas more accessible than when he addresses us in English.

Just as the British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks to his electorate in his mother tongue, Chinese President Hu Jintao does the same. Even François Hollande of France speaks to his countrymen in their native tongue.

Citizens who do not understand the language have the benefit of translators to rely on, and are thus encouraged to learn other official languages. Mind you, Zuma will only need to translate to a minority of us, and not vice versa.

Let us remember Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Haitian president, who spent only seven years in South Africa.

The man took us so seriously that, upon returning to Haiti, he delivered his goodbye speech in impeccable Zulu.

Until our dialogues are run in our own tongues we are parading borrowed dashikis.

» Follow me on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu

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