English or Afrikaans? Our identity is about so much more


In 2004, American political scientist Samuel P Huntington published a book curiously entitled, Who are we? America’s Great Debate

One of many subordinate questions he poses in the book is: "Do we [Americans] have any meaningful identity as a nation that transcends our sub-national ethnic, religious, racial identities?" 

Among other conclusions, Huntington observes that whereas America’s identity over the years had been shaped by a variety of factors such as religion, culture, language, immigration and so on, the country's vulnerability to external threats was fostering a sense of a new identity beyond the narrow affiliations. Understandably, this observation was made after 9/11.

In light of the "shithole" embarrassment that US president Donald Trump has become, Americans have to ask themselves if he represents them and whether his idea of American identity is something they hold dear. If it isn’t, what are they doing about it? 

Trump is clearly ignorant of America’s history. He would do well to heed President Franklin Roosevelt’s injunction: "Remember, remember always, that all of us and I, are descendants of immigrants and revolutionists."

Decades after Roosevelt made the remarks, it’s about time citizens of the world’s largest economy asked themselves: "Who are we, given the political barbarism of Trump, arguably the worst since slavery?"

Enough for now about Americans and their identity crisis. We have our own problems as South Africans. In the last few days since schools have re-opened, there has been violence and threats of violence outside Afrikaans medium schools over the admission of so-called English-speaking learners. 

Since when have African children become "English-speaking"? It’s a shame that many of the "English-speaking" learners are not even proficient in the language. Besides, they are not "English". Some speak isiZulu, xiTsonga, Sotho and other indigenous languages. 

The fact that English has become the dominant language seemingly because we like it that way for convenience of doing business doesn’t mean that we are English. The emphasis on being "English speaking" underlines the real challenge that our country faces: the slow disappearance of indigenous languages. 

Language is a source of identity. And, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o has observed, it also carries culture. The culture that comes with an indigenous language cannot be found in "English speaker". Speaking English doesn’t necessarily translate to carrying the English cultural traditions either.

This state of affairs leaves a cultural void among African learners. The democratic government seems to be doing worse in promoting indigenous languages. 

Of course the previous government didn’t seek to advance indigenous languages for the right reasons. In fact, it was part of apartheid’s separate development philosophy designed to keep blacks away from so-called "European" areas in South Africa. Identity was exploited for political ends.

Today English is seen as a glue of racial integration. Not only does this perpetuate the underdevelopment of indigenous languages, but it also prevents them from being at the centre of national discourse. Language is about the art of representation, not just a tool to transact with one another. 

In our national reconciliation project we missed the opportunity to make it attractive to white South Africans to learn indigenous languages. If unity in our diversity is at the heart of our national identity, as the Constitution suggests, shared understanding across race and ethnic groups is important. But language, in all its rich manifestation, should be the bridge to reach out. 

President Nelson Mandela once remarked: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to the heart."

If Mandela was right. It means most white South Africans haven't made an effort to reach out to the hearts of black South Africans. But by failing to promote indigenous languages, we black South Africans are not enriching the unity in diversity envisaged in the Constitution. We are being homogenised into English.

How wonderful it would be to read the headline: "Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi vows to fight the exclusion of Tswana-speaking learners from Hoërskool X." Or even much better: "FW de Klerk opens a school governing body meeting with a prayer in Xhosa." 

Access to education, a right that is enshrined in the Constitution, seems to be more important than access in a manner that empowers indigenous languages.

Afrikaans medium schools that use the language as a barrier against others who prefer to be taught in other languages are not helping the image of their language. But condemning the behaviour of such schools without doing anything to advance indigenous languages undermines our national identity anchored in unity in diversity.

Although English has been appropriated to advance the interests of those who speak it, including as a liberation weapon, this must not detract from the need to develop indigenous languages. 

The Constitution enjoins us to honour our diversity. It further declares 11 languages as official. Expressing South African citizenship through diversity of language and cultures is what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind.

It is inconceivable that they would have had in mind the transformation of our children into "English speakers". The lack of agreement about how the unity in diversity should find expression in language raises serious questions about our identity as South Africans. One of the questions is: who are we?

- Mkhabela is with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.

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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