This month South Africans from all works of life will embark on various festivities to honour our heritage as a nation. In a broader sense, this is indeed a great indication of how victorious the democratic revolution has been in as far as managing to emancipate those who were deprived of their cultural identities and inheritance. Prior to the 1994, most South Africans were to a certain extent restricted from their cultures, traditions and ethnic dignity (thanks to the Group Area Act of 1950, and the Land Act of 1913). It’s quit depressing and time consuming to reflect on the legacy of these two former laws, and going that route would make my article more emotional rather than being rational. Having said that, I know that I won’t be in good terms with own people since I am “supposedly obliged” to narrow my view of what heritage is. Ofcourse the meaning of heritage may vary across the South African landscapes, but the obvious one is that it is the celebration of the legacy left by our ancestors through monuments, culture, traditions and languages.
However, the extent at which heritage is accepted at the national level has varied since the onset of the democratic South Africa. Let the truth be told here, some of the cultural and traditional heritages have never been afforded the dignity and respect they deserve. Despite this unpopular claim, I must also acknowledge that a lot has been done by the broader society and the government when it comes to the preservation of our heritage as a country. Monument have been built, heritage sites have been declared, and most importantly there has been a huge commitment by the South African government in the hosting of various cultural and traditional events during the national heritage month (credit must be given where it’s due here). Be that as it may, it must be stressed out that some of the South Africa’s heritage has remained unacknowledged despite being into almost 20 years of our fragile democracy. Most of you by now will say the disregard of the ethnic, religious and linguistical inheritance of minority groups is prevalent in most countries around the world.
In the South African context, language inheritance of some of the minority groups have suffered a great deal of oppression. Well, I am not here to mention who’s ethnic group or language is superior over the other, but would like to mention how dehumanised are some of the minority groups in South Africa. Without fear or favour I will mention that there are some existing inequalities and challenges when it comes to linguistical gratitude in South Africa. I know if you are a white South African you will find it difficult to relate to this, because it’s either you’re your first or second language is English or Afrikaans (visa versa), with some few exceptions(maybe). As for the rest of the groups it’s either you are presumed as Zulu or something closer to that. You may shoot me down for this, but you will be surprised to see how many people that can’t actual name all the eleven official language by heart, I bet you that most people that I have asked this question did not go beyond five languages, as for the remainder of the languages they didn’t have a clue about them. Could this be ignorance or some people are just not aware about the existence of all the other languages.
Furthermore, there has been an epic failure by public entities to promote South African languages. I find it very much irrelevant for local public service facilities to display notice boards and warning signs in languages that are not predominantly used in that specific area where the public entity is found. In these building there is usually notices written in three languages, for an example a warning sign will go like “Danger, Ingozi, Gevaarlik”. Well, there is nothing wrong with this except the fact that the message might not get across to the intended individual. I will confess that the inclusion of an English word is unavoidable, but the other two might be difficult to understand for a majority of the targeted group particularly in that specific area. I am not saying that everyone in that area cannot understand these languages, but my point is that why not use English and Afrikaans with one local language such as Sepedi, Tshivenda and Xitsonga if you are in the Limpopo Province for an example (depending on where you are in Limpopo) than choosing something that is spoken in the Eastern Cape or Kwazulu Natal for the Limpopians. Ofcourse the private entities are entitled to their own choices and preferences, but not government owned enterprises. But come elections time, those in government don’t disappoint, because all the posters and brochures comes in the language that the targeted group understand.
Similarly, one expects the national broadcasters to be at the forefront of promoting cultural and linguistical diversity. I must say that public radio stations have done exceptional well in terms of promoting ethnic and linguistic minorities to celebrate their own languages and cultures. However, the opposite is the case for their counterparts in the television; I am particularly talking about the whole SABC television setup. For an example, the majority of programmes that are aired on SABC 1 are predominantly Zulu and Xhosa, and this channel is almost a replica of what Soweto TV stands for. I will honestly say that SABC 2 is the broadcaster’s project aimed at showing that the public broadcasters is failing to bring ethnic balance in it’s programming, but trying very hard though. As for channel 3, we all know that it has been designed to suit non-native languages speakers. The strength of my arguments here lies in the fact that ethnic groups such as Vendas, Tsongas and Ndebeles are not being given the sufficient medium and platform to celebrate their languages and cultures on national television as the other “dominant” ones (those who watch SABC television will agree with me). Could this be deliberate, I wonder. Instead of adding a new channel that will address the challenges mentioned above, the public broadcaster choose to open a below par 24 hours news channel. Clearly, any civilized person will know that I am not advocating for tribal grudges here, but feel obliged to engage on what seems to be one of the most ignored issue in South Africa.
As if the above is the only challenges that exist in the languages issue in South Africa, I also wish to convey the fact that there are some seemingly neglected South African languages such as Fanagalo, Khoe, Lobedu, Nama, Northern Ndebele, Phuthi, and San. Due to the small numbers of speakers of these languages, authorities are too reluctant to grant them the national recognition they deserve, but instead they call them unofficial languages, and leaving them being linguistically marginalised. It is quit disappointing to continue to see that these languages are a considered as some mere dialects even after 20 years of our freedom as South Africans. How can speakers of these languages celebrate the heritage month with pride if their languages are still deprived of the recognition they deserve, because language, culture and traditions are inseparable. The least that I am asking for from national authorities is to embark on a rigorous awareness on these marginalised languages, and tell people we have eleven official languages, plus the ones that are dubbed as “unofficial” for some reasons I guess. I say it’s not yet uhuru, the struggle for the emancipation of South Africa’s ethnic groups continues.
- Allen Tshautshau, Environmental Control Officer and South African National Antarctic Programme’s Deputy Team Leader at Marion Island.
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