Why African languages need to be protected and promoted

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Wits University this week conferred an honorary doctorate in African Studies to internationally acclaimed philosopher and writer Professor Molefi Kete Asante. Photo: Wits University
Wits University this week conferred an honorary doctorate in African Studies to internationally acclaimed philosopher and writer Professor Molefi Kete Asante. Photo: Wits University


This is his acceptance speech: 

To the chancellor, vice-chancellor and principal, university board, faculty colleagues and students, especially the graduating Class of 2022, I am happy to share this centenary with you here at Wits. Your social justice contribution stands near your commitment to excellence; one feeds the other.

All African languages must be respected; there are no languages greater than others. More resources have indeed been given to some languages than to others. We must work to advance unity by asserting the rights of all people to assert their own languages.

On this continent, there are over 4 000 languages and in no language is there a prohibition from speaking or hearing another language. This was our perspective from the beginning of human civilisation.

We knew that people were different; some were shorter, taller, darker, lighter, and so forth but we did not rank people according to difference. Ranking created a racial ladder and it is that ladder that has become embedded in the literature, social sciences and sciences of Western civilisation.

Remember that modernisation and westernisation are not synonymous. An Afrocentric modernisation is just as viable as that of any other culture.

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So, you must create, but creation stalls if you do not maintain. I have seen beautiful structures, glorious in design and marvellous in execution. But, I have also seen such structures in disrepair, fountains without water, buildings without cleanliness and gardens left to weeds.

Every society wrestles with this problem. Decline is automatic, natural and inexorable unless we intervene with our ancestral understanding of holding back chaos.

Those who invaded and conquered brought with them the classification of humans, based on hierarchies of races introduced the ranking of human beings. There is only one human race but there are many cultures.

The domination of African culture has distorted our view of Africa itself, creating cultures of confusion and people who have forgotten their ancestors.

The embodiment of African mythology is the beginning of science; it is human beings putting meaning into nature, manifestations of the abstract. You are the generation that must step up to pitch and relocate us to the subject position that we must have in the interpretation of our reality.

There are certain facts that you must now know as graduates:

First, you know that all humans have the ability to learn.

Second, you know that freedom of speech is a lodestone of democracy and that we must honour the right of others to speak.

Third, you must live your passion by elevating yourself and those around you!

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Today, you will have graduated and now you will begin the real knowledge of self and your contribution to making the world better.

Always begin at the beginning and you will start correctly.

Africa is the Mother Continent of the earth; the birthplace of humanity.

The first Homo sapiens, humans like us, were Africans, who arose 300 000 years ago.

Before, 70 000 years ago, every person in the whole wide world was an African.

Human intelligence is equally distributed around the world, but opportunity and resources are not fairly distributed. You must act to make them fully available to all people.

Become Afrocentrists and never support the oppression of any people based on race, colour, creed, gender or class; give your best to alleviate the pestilence of ignorance that creates racists, patriarchs, anti-Africans and anti-Semites.

I have faith in this class; I have faith because you will be exposed to the possibilities that did not exist for me.

Keep your sense of character and Maaticity, the ancient African ideal of justice, righteousness, truth, harmony, order, balance and reciprocity, and you will soar higher than the eagles one sees on the mountain tops in Mpumalanga.

Celebrate the rainbow and praise the cosmic force that made us all.

Me daa ase, thank you. As the Asante say in Ghana, I lie at your feet.

* Professor Asante is currently the professor and chair in the Department of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University, Philadelphia, in the US, where he founded the PhD programme in African-American Studies.

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