Guest Column

Language and represention matter, Mr Mboweni

2018-09-21 12:33
Tito Mboweni

Tito Mboweni

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Bombi Mavundza

On Thursday, I had an interesting exchange with former Reserve Bank governor, Prof Tito Mboweni. It was quite exciting, I must say. The last time I spoke to the man was 20 years ago when I was 9 years old and at his niece’s wedding in ka Mushwana in Nkowankowa, Tzaneen.

Back then, I had no idea who he was, and little did I know that a few months later he would be appointed the first black governor of the highest bank in the land.

As you can imagine, this was very exciting for 9-year-old me. He was someone I had met and shook hands with. He spoke my language, was from an area I had been to, was related to people I knew personally and was now a big man. Representation matters, and that moment imprinted on me – and I’m sure many others – that anything was possible for the young Tsonga boy and girl from ka Mushwana or Giyani where I come from.

Mboweni's call on Thursday was not a courtesy call, however. No, he was angry about an article that I had written about the fact that he went on a Xitsonga radio station, Munghana Lonene FM, and spoke predominantly in English. Sure, he spoke Tsonga in the introduction which was cringeworthy to say the least. It was bad. Did he forget his language? How? He writes perfect, grammatically correct Tsonga posts on Twitter. The spelling is also correct. How is it possible that he gets the verbal part wrong?

Clearly, he can properly conjugate verbs to make a Tsonga sentence. His outburst towards me was one which, under normal circumstances, would have made me shake in my sneakers. But the fact that it too was in English made me disconnect from him entirely.

I tried reconnecting by responding in Xitsonga, but it was a door that refused to open.

When I first saw people’s reactions to his radio interview, I thought it was funny. People got so worked up. Have you ever heard Jomo Sono, Shakes Mashaba, Irvin Khoza, Thomas Mlambo, Eugene Khoza, Siphiwe Tshabalala, Slikour and Given Mkhari speak Tsonga?

I’ve met three of these men and all of them spoke to me in English. In the one case, I understood and the other two not so much. In fact, I was most disappointed in one of the three.

Why would I, then, be angry at Tatana Mboweni? It is to be expected.

Xitsonga is one of the minor languages in the country. It lends its minority to the fact that Tsonga people, like chameleons, adapt very easily to their environment. We laugh at the jokes and never quite correct people who don’t know that Malamulele and Giyani are 30 km apart. I mean, they are literally two different towns.

You can but understand the immense joy we feel when we see someone on a high platform seemingly owning their identity and excelling. In this regard, their excellence is our excellence. It’s collective.

So you can understand the disappointment the collective feels when all that excellence linguistically separates itself from the group.

South African native languages have, in recent years, been discussed ad nauseum. The topic gets especially heated when it is about black children who do not speak their mother tongue because, as their parents offer as excuse, schools demand that the children speak English at home.

I went to an Afrikaans primary school in the late '90s. Of all the things our school pretty much had to beg our parents to do, speaking Afrikaans in the household was not one of them. I doubt that that reaction would have stuck after the dawn of democracy.

However, it’s as if something changed with the turn of the century. It's as if the real struggle among black people was not for self-actualisation, but for whiteness. We want the stuff of white people because that elevates us to an obscure level distant from who we once were.

It’s almost Animal Farm-ish. The big house has become too comfortable; therefore, it makes sense to rid ourselves of our identity.

That is what it felt like for many Munhana listeners that day. The more I feel myself following the Tsonga trend, the more I feel it is important for me to retain myself and protect my identity. And I find myself doing so by showing pride in my language.

Every year on September 24, I join the hordes who fight that the day not be called Braai Day, but Heritage Day. It's a day we must use to genuinely ask where we are from and find out more about our culture instead of indulging in jokes and stereotypes.

Besides representation, our languages matter and we all owe it to ourselves to continuously show pride.

- Mavundza is a journalist at Business Insider SA.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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