Language and loathing

2011-02-19 10:47

Language has always been an instrument of power and domination in South Africa.

When Dingaan muttered those fateful words: “Bulala abathakathi!” in 1838 the Zulu king understood language’s utility as a tool of warfare.

As did the National Party when it imposed Afrikaans as a ­medium of education which sparked the June 76 uprising; as did Peter Mokaba when he chanted “Kill the Boer, kill the farmer” in 1994.

Throughout history, language has been used as an instrument of defiance by the dispossessed and as instrument of oppression by the powerful. Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande knows language’s utility as a tool of exclusion.

A member of the ANC’s erudite elite, Nzimande’s speeches are invariably finely crafted pieces of oratory that are as ­incisive as they are entertaining.

Nzimande’s skill as a speaker is buttressed by an impeccable sense of timing, a razor-sharp intellect and a superb command of language.

This week Nzimande raised the ire of parliamentarians when he said:“If the matric results are bad, this is taken as proof that this government of darkies is incapable.

If the matric pass rate goes up, it means the results have been manipulated by these darkies.”

Our higher education minister knows the inflammatory potential of racial epithet, how this term is derogatory and divisive.

That “darkie” is one of a substantial lexicon of terms, including “madam”, “baas”, “boy”, “boesman”, steeped in contextual significance that drum up painful histories.

That resonate with divisive discourses of “us” and “them”.

That are colour-coded with the shorthand of caste hierarchies and class disparities. That evoke memories of shame for the “ups” and rage for the “downs”.

That demarcate the boundaries of the “ins” and the “outs”.

Nzimande hauled all these linguistic tropes into play and unleashed the hounds of hell of our painful past by his calculated use of a term he no doubt knew would inflame.

Nzimande’s racial epithet rippled through the media for several days.

On Thursday Deputy Speaker Nomaindia Mfeketo urged MPs to “avoid offensive and inflammatory language”.

But while Nzimande’s “darkie” comments garnered media coverage, his derisive jab in Zulu to Democratic Alliance MP Lindiwe Mazibuko went almost unnoticed: “Kuyahlupha ukungakhuleli elokshini ngesinye iskhathi” (it is sometimes a problem not to have grown up in the township).

Nzimande’s sotto voce assault on Mazibuko was short, sharp and as loaded as “darkie”.

The indictment lay in what he said, and in his choice of language. Switching to Zulu, he pulled the classic “darkie” power play: using vernacular to drive home his point to Mazibuko and skillfully exclude non-Zulu speakers.

It is hard for abelungu, amaboesman and amaindia, who did not grow up in townships and are not reaping the benefits of the ­unintended consequence of apartheid: ­multilingualism.

But they are not the only ones who feel the sting of linguistic exclusion.

Speaking on multilingualism at Stellenbosch University last year, Nzimande said: “We tend to forget that the overwhelming majority of university students in this country are taught in their second language.”

The hopes of this overwhelming majority to ascend to ranks of the educated elite will rise and fall on their proficiency in English or Afrikaans – which still dominate in the worlds of commerce, science and technology.

Their confidence will be built on the grace of their linguistically privileged compatriots who recognize the power they wield.

Or will get broken by silencing sniggers triggered by syntactical snafus and grammatical gaffes.

Not speaking a language puts you on the back foot. Irrespective of the reason – privilege or disadvantage – it renders you powerless and vulnerable.

The country’s linguistic policy, Nzimande told the Stellenbosch audience, “objects to the tendency to use Afrikaans as a barrier of access for non-speakers of the language”.

Languages are learned in nurturing environments; that is why they are called “mother tongues”.

Languages are acquired through immersion and repitition, by making mistakes secure in the knowledge that your metaphorical “mother” will lovingly correct you until you get it right.

Languages are not learned in an atmosphere of hostility, under the duress of potential derision, nor through the caustic brinkmanship Nzimande displayed against Mazibuko.

In his repeated and unapologetic use of inflammatory racial epithet, Nzimande risks encouraging the permissibility of divisive discourses in institutions of higher learning where language is already a site of contestation.

The fish rots from the head, Mr Minister. Or as they say in the linguistically challenged township where I grew up: “Monkey see, monkey do.”

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