Dlamini-Zuma tweet over 'dying language' causes a stir

Katrina Esau (Twitter)
Katrina Esau (Twitter)

When Claudia Snyman and her grandmother, Katrina Esau, speak the ancient /Nuu language of the San they can have a good old gossip because only a handful of close family members can understand them.

"When we speak, people's ears become switched off," laughs 27-year-old Claudia whose granny is trying desperately to keep the language alive. 

Says Ouma Katrina: "I've had about 40, 50 people come to learn. But when the children get older they become more interested in other things like boyfriends, parties."

Ouma Katrina, 86, made news this week after Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma wished her a happy birthday (unfortunately a few months later, or early, since it was in February).

"Happy 86th birthday to 'Ouma Katriena'," began the message.

However, the tribute to the elder as a custodian of what Dlamini-Zuma called Boesmantaal (Bushman language) quickly got people talking, with some people pointing out that the minister had used an offensive identifier for the /Nuu language.

She demanded an apology from Dlamini-Zuma tweeting: "Minister, You must apologize to ALL Khoe, using a derogatory term synonymous with degrading of the Khoe & colored ppl during apartheid,I will be writing a letter formally requesting you to apologise. Imagine if we call you what apartheid called black people and just add "taal [all sic]".

Dlamini-Zuma was quickly tagged in a tweet by Davison Mudzingwa, pointing to a video on the subject, and spelling it differently to the way Ouma Katrina's son, Prince Jacobus Titus, spelled it to News24.

Mudzingwa tweeted that a documentary had been done on efforts to save the language, and that it would be good if Esau's efforts were boosted.

Dlamini-Zuma retweeted some of the tweets, which included a call for the language to be protected.

But Ouma Katrina, who has seen the tweet, told News24 she did not feel insulted at all by the word.

"My goodness! It is my language! This is my nation - Bushman - I am very proud of it."

She said it was important to her to keep the language alive, and she has dipped into her pension money to pay any costs associated with the lessons.

Ouma Katrina found that many people had made huge promises to help with books or petrol to fetch the children for lessons, but not many had made good on them.

She has, however, been given the use of a hall in Upington, but it does not have water and electricity, so she is still waiting for that to be dealt with.

Ouma Katrina said she needed equipment more than money to record the language to prevent it from dying out.

She explained that she had had to "make up" /Nuu words for modern inventions. For airplanes, for example, she joined the /Nuu words for iron and bird.

She has even had an English couple come over for some basic lessons.

Her son, Prince Jacobus, agrees with her stance on the name of the language. 

"No it's not an old colonial word. That is the word that the Boesman want to call the language. They don't want a coloured name or any other name. 

"There are still Bushmen in the Kalahari and they want to be called that. I'm proudly Boesman. If you make me an ID now, you must put 'a Bushman'."

He said that as the "first people", the San's struggle to protect /Nuu was part of a greater struggle for government's recognition, with stipends that other monarchies receive. 

He said that as a prince he had to pay his own way if, for example, he had to attend a meeting to represent the San's interests, adding that he would like it to be ironed out for once and for all.

Dlamini-Zuma's spokesperson, Lungi Mtshali, said the minister had checked with Ouma Katrina on whether she had made a blunder over the name for the language, but it was confirmed that the word was just fine by her. Mtshali added that the department was pleased that there was a debate about it. 

"Self-determination is a very important thing," he said, adding that using a different word to the way people identified themselves might also be offensive.

"People must have this debate. It will assist all of us to understand our diversity."

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