Be proud of your language

2017-09-24 06:26
Katrina Esau passes on her language knowledge.

Katrina Esau passes on her language knowledge.

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

You may never understand why I was left spellbound and shouting in absolute joy when I heard, for the first time, a mainstream artist singing in my mother tongue, siNdebele sase Nyakatho (Northern Ndebele).

Unless, like me, your mother tongue falls into that category of tongues known as minority languages, you may not understand why something like this, which for many people is normal, meant so much.

My mother tongue is spoken largely in Limpopo, parts of northern Mpumalanga, North West and northern Gauteng.

Northern Ndebele falls under the Tekela group of Nguni languages, which include siSwati, isiHlubi, isiBhaca and sePhuti.

It should not be confused with isiNdebele, which is spoken on Ikwekwezi FM and is one of the country’s 11 official languages.

IsiNdebele, together with the Ndebele spoken in Zimbabwe, falls under the Zunda language group of the Nguni, which includes isiZulu and isiXhosa.

According to the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), if nothing is done, half of the more than 6 000 languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century.

And, with the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, says Unesco, humanity will lose not only an irreplaceable cultural heritage, but also valuable ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages.

Through its Endangered Languages Programme, Unesco supports communities, experts and governments to help preserve indigenous languages.

There are 10 South African languages on Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

These are all Khoi and San languages, which are either highly endangered or extinct.

While programmes like this one are important, it is the people themselves who are key role players in the preservation of indigenous languages.

For instance, my late parents may not have known about Unesco or its programmes.

But today, as the country celebrates Heritage Day, I’m grateful to them for the greatest heritage gift of all – that of instilling in me the love, knowledge and appreciation of our mother tongue.

We must have been one of only a few families in Soshanguve township near Pretoria, where I grew up in the 1980s, who spoke the language daily, openly and, I must add, with pride.

Even in public spaces, this was the language we spoke among ourselves, much to the delight and surprise of those around us.

Just a dream

There was an unwritten rule that, in our home, this was to be the only spoken language.

We knew only too well not to speak any other language at home, especially in the presence of our stern father, who would not hesitate to call to order anyone violating this golden language code.

“Munrwana wami [My child],” he would say if he overheard you speaking another language, “nga bani nngale [whose house is this]?”

Of course, you would sheepishly respond that this was the house of Ledwaba, to which he would demand to know why a foreign language was being spoken in this house of Ndebeles.

At school, we studied Northern Sotho because there wasn’t a school in the country that offered our language. We were even told there were no Northern Ndebele books in existence.

Our teachers, just like our friends and neighbours, always made fun of us and our language, but it wasn’t anything malicious.

They too seemed fascinated by it and envied the fact that we actually spoke this unknown tongue.

I remember one day when a man walking past our house overheard us speaking and stopped in his tracks in total surprise and a reasonable amount of shock.

We were making sandals from cardboard boxes and the man appeared absolutely fascinated by the siNdebele word for shoes, ‘tikrabula’.

He asked us to repeat the word quite a number of times while he listened in fascination. In the end, he struggled to pronounce it and walked away.

On the streets, my friends made good fun of some of the words we used, such as ‘sidudu’, which means pap.

The only time we heard other people speak siNdebele was at family gatherings or if we visited our kin in Limpopo, which was then northern Transvaal.

In those days, hearing someone speak or sing in the language on radio was just a dream. I don’t even think it was something we imagined was possible.

So, it was with absolute disbelief when one day, back in 2000, while driving in Johannesburg, I heard Jonas Gwangwa use an siNdebele phrase in his album A Temporary Inconvenience.

Gwangwa is of Ndebele origin, but, for some reason, I had not expected him to sing in siNdebele. After all, he is an internationally decorated and respected musical genius who lived in the US and Europe for many years.

So, when I heard him remark “liNdebele la sumela mala li yafa” in his song Shebeen Queen, I had to pinch myself. It felt unbelievable.

Gwangwa continued this trend in his 2001 album Sounds From Exile, in which he opens with the song Afrika Lefatshe La Badimo, which is sung in Sepedi, with a popular siNdebele medley.

In his 2008 album Kukude, he sings an entire siNdebele folk song, Letuba lami (My pigeon), in the language.

That a man of Gwangwa’s stature finds it important to sing in his mother tongue – a minority language not known to many and not even recognised by government – underlines the importance of language and its connection to identity and self-respect.


The thought of a language becoming extinct is just too tragic, and its implications go way beyond the mere loss of the spoken word.

But with giants such as Gwangwa showing the way, it is unlikely siNdebele will end up on Unesco’s dreaded endangered list.

Elsewhere, Dr Plaatjie Mahlobogoane is compiling a Northern Ndebele dictionary, which is available online, and community radio stations in parts of Limpopo are broadcasting in the language daily.

All this is a sign that a language doesn’t need to be recognised by any institution, including government, for it to be spoken and preserved.

It is the people themselves who are primarily responsible for ensuring that their language does not disappear.

On the streets of the bustling bushveld town of Mokopane (Mughombane) people converse openly in the language. One bank even has a notice in siNdebele on its glass door.

It reads “tiawara te gu bhanka [banking hours]”.

By continuing to speak their language, the people of Mokopane have made businesses acknowledge their tongue and communicate with them in it.

Perhaps the best lesson on the importance of one’s mother tongue is carried in a statement made by renowned African scholar and author Ngugi wa Thiong’o during his lecture titled Secure the Base, Decolonise the Mind at Wits University earlier this year.

He said: “If you know all the languages of the world but not your mother tongue, that is enslavement. Knowing your mother tongue and all other languages too is empowerment.” – Mukurukuru Media


Do you want to preserve indigenous languages? Do you and your family encourage the use of yours at home?

SMS us on 35697 using the keywords MOTHER TONGUE and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

Read more on:    unesco  |  language  |  heritage day

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.