Language as a mode of being

2017-08-20 06:17

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I was seated in the corner of the pew alongside the aisle – past which the elder ladies would walk with a graceful posture that exuded authority and tradition. If I avoided eye contact, I would be rendered suspicious; a straight face would mean I was snobbish. The best chance I had was to turn my eyes away awkwardly and carry an acknowledging smile. I always remembered that my look should never be long enough to qualify as a stare.

One Sunday I felt quite rebellious; I mean, I was read as quite rebellious; I mean, I was quite rebellious: I went there wearing pants. After Mass, I was called aside. I felt the same chill as when called into the principal’s office at school. I had to decide how I would negotiate this scene. I proceeded seamlessly, as though the script of the day had been given to me beforehand.

It is in such encounters that agency is negotiated. Indeed, it is one of locating, or rather, situating oneself in both character and context. An instrument of function that I have developed over the approximately two decades of my existence is to recognise yourself both from within and without.

My position therefore as a black South African woman is not fixed, it is malleable, although with restrictions. The notion of negotiation is one that I use in many of my interactions. It is a sense of bending boundaries without necessarily breaking or erasing them.

Yvonne Vera poetically places this notion in her novel Butterfly Burning, “their bodies long for flight, not surrender, simply the need to leap over the limit quickly and smoothly without bringing attention to oneself”.

It is possible for one to be in a position of leadership without being accountable for the processes which enabled the occupation of that position. The pertinence of having to ask how, rather than why, gives insight to the functionality of meaning and understanding. Particularly meaning and understanding which is generated by the signs and symbols used within and around a given space and time. In this sense then, the enabling factors of leadership are situated. It can then be known what the leadership is premised upon and its legitimacy can be argued for or not. Whereas, if the question why was prioritised, there would be an infinite number of reasons placed as justifications.

In a general sense, leadership has linear connotations to it. In the sense that it is understood as a group of followers which is separate from the followed. In a distinct, yet similar, sense, it is an idea of the centre, which seamlessly holds together a collective. These notions of understanding leadership are problematic because variations and differences are not allowed to exist without being perceived as divisive.

This universal idea of leadership erases intricacies and nuances that exist in our realities. The universal modes of being blanket existing multiple languages that are not as amplified.

If there is a repository from which one gets a sense of being (even in leadership), it would not be from thinking alone, but feeling too. When I speak of language, it is as a mode of being, not simply as a way of communicating. When language is reduced to communication, it is confined into a single space and time. If so, our interactions are vulnerable to misappropriation of meaning through the loss of translation.

In order for one to be able to negotiate, one ought to get a sense of one’s relative location. One should be able to identify the tools accessible to oneself in the process of locating oneself.

Often there is a sense of obliviousness towards languages that already exist within discourse – which we ourselves often render inaccessible or even invisible. In this sense then, to be conscious would mean being aware of when and how hegemonic notions blanket intricacies through universalising the less amplified nuances of language. It is in very banal yet extravagant ways that we keep up with the status quo that is often quite violent and oppressive.

Ndimande is an activist and writer.

This article forms part of a partnership by African youth culture voice, Thought We Had Something Going, which seeks to acknowledge our collective differences and similarities. Go to for more.

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