Mbhazima Shilowa | Some language groups are more equal than others

Despite the ANC's founding father Pixley Ka Isaka Seme and the Freedom Charter calling for all national groups to have equal rights, Mbhazima Shilowa argues that hasn't happened for all language groups with some still being sidelined. 

The formation of the ANC in 1912 sought amongst others to unite all Africans to fight for their rights and freedoms in the land of their birth and against land dispossession, racism and tribalism. As the founder of the ANC, Pixley Ka Isaka Seme said,

“The demon of racialism, the aberration of the Xhosa-Fingo feud, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tongas, between the Basutos and every other native must be buried and forgotten”.

Present at that launch were chiefs including Hosi Muhlava I, people's representatives, church organisations, and other prominent individuals. 

Successive apartheid governments forged ahead with the entrenchment of racism, pass laws, group areas act and separated blacks into reserves according to nationality. 

Curiously, the Vatsonga were not to be accorded a bantustan but rather had their areas carved between VhaVenda and Basotho ba Lebowa. It was through the intervention of some chiefs from the then "traditional authorities" of Ndlopfu, Ritavi, Malamulele, Hlanganani and Amashangani that they too were granted "self governing rule". This was not a unanimous decision as a number of communities like others elsewhere were not in favour of bantustan rule. In the end communities were forcefully removed from their ancestral land to make way for the respective homelands of Gazankuku, Venda, Lebowa, Kangwane and Kwandebele.

In one fell swoop Valoyi, Munyayi and Mokgalaka who all belonged to the Munhumutapa clan were separated, even though they were in the same area to join Vatsonga, Basotho and VhaVenda respectively.

Throughout the apartheid years, Vatsonga were regarded as people of a lesser tribe, leading some to hide their identity or real surnames. Xitsonga became anathema in their homes. This led BKM Mthombeni, the then "representive of Vatsonga in the Reef" to pen a series of articles in "Nhluvuko" under the heading: "Hi ti sola yini"? (Why do we look down upon ourselves”?) He extolled Vutsonga calling on Vatsonga to be proud of their heritage. 

In the same vein, BJ Masebenza penned a poem titled Xinhloni "porcupine" 

“Bay'rhay't" xihloni xa hlamarisa

Xi vumbiwile xi sasekile ngopfu

Loko xi twa swigingi

Hambi u toya kumbe nhenha 


Loko munhu a hundzile

Hi kona xi kotaka ku humelela Mbuya!

U nga ha n'wi tiva Muchangana? Ho, wa tlanga wena.

A wu n'wi lemuki wa-ka-Gaza, 

U jika kusuhi ku fana na xikuta.

A Vasuthwini wa "buwa,"

A Mazulwini wa "khuluma,"

Hambi Valungu-ntimeni wa "Prata" 

Ndzi vona vafambisi va mimovha Va kiringa.

Kambe a va fiki ka va ka hina Loko va cinca

He too was writing about how Vatsonga had become adept at hiding their origins depending on the situation. Mun’wanati became Mkwanazi. Shilowa became Selowa and Ngoveni decided to use Ngobese as a surname.

During the xenophobic attacks in 2008, someone told me that as Premier I should tell Vatsonga to leave Duduza and the country. When I asked him if that included Paul Mashatile and myself, he responded that we couldn’t be Vatsonga as we were in leadership positions. 

New dispensation 

The 1994 breakthrough was meant to usher in a new dispensation in which the demon of racism and tribalism was exorcised. But like racism and sexism, tribalism seems to be very stubborn. Like racism and sexism, it is internalized. 

When the SABC established its African stations in the 1960’s, referred to as Radio Bantu, Xitsonga and Tshivebda were the last to be serviced in 1965. Even then they shared time slots on alternative days for two hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening. It was only later that each were allocated own frequencies. 

In democracy, the two languages have been relegated to the status of orphans sharing limited times on alternative days on television. While there is a Tshivenda soapie, Muvhango, nothing exists for Vatsonga. Giyani Land of Blood, was not extended or replaced when it came to an end. How children are expected to believe that their language matters when they do not hear or see it spoken on TV is beyond me. No wonder many struggle to hold a conversation in Xitsonga. They prefer to converse in English.

It is lack of political will from the government to insist that all languages be treated equally as outlined in the Freedom Charter that “All National Groups shall have Equal Rights."

There shall be equal status in the bodies of the state, in the courts and in the schools for all national groups and races; All people shall have equal right to use their own languages and to develop their own folk culture and custom

The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) was established to promote multilingualism, to develop the 11 official languages, and to protect language rights in South Africa. I have not heard it speak out against the exclusion of Xitsonga in general use on TV. It seems to regard its role as that of helping authors and publishers of books and to translate English and Afrikaans into other languages. Surely helping authors should include calling for scripts for plays for use by the SABC. They seem to be there for the prestige and salaries.

It is the same with the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL), who seem more concerned about the antics of wayward pastors who instruct their followers to eat grass and drink petrol than the rights of linguists communities.

If government is committed to promotion of all languages on TV why is Xitsonga not part of the languages used to call on the public to follow anti Covid-19 health guidelines of washing hands, sanitizing, wearing of masks and keeping physical distance. Does the language policy of the department of health exclude Xitsonga? 

Since the advent of democracy government has opened two new universities in Mpumalanga and Northern Cape with another one earmarked for Ekurhuleni in Gauteng. This is commendable. Yet, Giyani and the surrounding environs with infrastructure that used to house UniGaz stands empty. Again this feeds into the narrative of exclusion under a new dispensation. Surely there is a bigger feed there for university students as well. 

Thomas Hasani Chauke, a Xitsonga musician sings, about an orphan asking parents: “Ndzi n’wana mani? (Whose child am I). Many in those areas are asking the same question of our government.

Recently a letter was sent to the Judge President of the Polokwane High Court asking why there was not even a single Mutsonga in his recently constituted bench. Maybe the letter was directed at the wrong door, but the point they were making remains valid - that those in charge of the justice system cannot in good conscience say that they could not find anyone to be on the bench. Again it points to lack of political will or asking the difficult question of whether the bench is representative beyond race and gender.

Government has done a lot to deal with issues of tribalism, real and perceived. They can do more to ensure that one does not get confronted with questions of "kasi hina hi vana va mani" (whose children are we) every time one sets foot in the village. 

In the same way issues of race and gender can not be left to the state alone, Vatsonga also have a responsibility.

It is incumbent upon them to grow Xitsonga literature including research, writing, publishing, distribution, reading, conversation and speech-making.

They have a duty to document known indigenous knowledge systems working with other progressive formations inside and outside of the republic.

But individual and linguistic communities can only do so much on their own. 

It is time for government to meet them halfway by fulfilling the promises of our constitution.

- Mbhazima Shilowa is the former premier of the Gauteng province and general secretary of Cosatu. 

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